The Missouri State House of Representatives revised its dress code for female legislators and staff members, requiring them to wear a jacket, such as a blazer or a cardigan, and setting off a debate about policing the fashion choices of women.
The updated dress code — which was adopted on Wednesday by a vote of 105-51 as part of a larger package of rules governing the House — drew criticism from some Democratic lawmakers, who described the Republican-backed effort as sexist and pointless. Supporters said it was a small tweak that would help ensure professionalism inside the chamber.
The main proponent of the new rule — State Representative Ann Kelley, a Republican, who introduced it — said on the House floor that the new rules for women would mirror the dress code language for men, and that it “is essential to always maintain a formal and professional atmosphere” in the House.
“You would think that all you would have to do is say, ‘Dress professionally,’ and women could handle it,” Ms. Kelley said. “You would think elected officials could handle that.”
The amendment took up four sentences in a 37-page resolution that established rules governing the State House of Representatives, including how committee meetings are announced and attendance policies for lawmakers. There are 116 men and 43 women in the House. In the State Senate, there is no rule requiring a woman to wear a blazer.
Ms. Kelley, who did not immediately respond to a call and an email seeking comment on Saturday, said on the floor that she sought to establish revised rules because even though new female lawmakers were told that a jacket was required in the chamber, there had been some women who believed that if “you were wearing a skirt or a sweater, you did not have to wear a jacket.”
She said on Facebook that the chief clerk of the House, Dana Rademan Miller, had wanted to put such a rule in place “for many years.”
“Now, it has been fixed,” Ms. Kelley said.
Dress codes for men, who are required to wear a jacket, shirt and tie, were not changed.
Jamie Tomek, the secretary of the Missouri chapter of the National Organization for Women, said on Saturday that she and other organization members were “outraged” that Republicans had wasted time by focusing on a futile, misogynistic issue.
“We have a Republican Legislature, so they think they have time to spend on those kinds of things, as opposed to real issues that citizens of Missouri need dealing with,” she said.
Some Democratic representatives objected to the idea that a dress code change was necessary.
“I think we’re being quite pedantic here by making rules so petty,” State Representative Raychel Proudie, a Democrat, said on Wednesday in the chamber. “And what it will ultimately lead to is the disenfranchisement of folks. For example, they don’t make jackets or blazers for women who are pregnant. That can be very uncomfortable.”
Other Democratic lawmakers said the rule change underscored how women had historically been subjected to heightened scrutiny and criticism over their fashion choices.
Similar feuds over sexual bias in dress codes have played out across the country, particularly in school settings, other state legislatures and Congress, with students and professionals expressing frustration at unequal guidelines.
In Wyoming, state lawmakers last year voted to loosen one of the strictest dress codes in the nation for legislators by simply requiring them to wear “business attire,” The Casper Star-Tribune reported. For example, bolo ties — a string tie held in place by an ornament that is called a bolo — had been acceptable, but they had to be “worn tight with the top button of a collared shirt buttoned.”
In Montana, Democrats have criticized the dress code in the State House of Representatives, which says that female lawmakers “should be sensitive to skirt lengths and necklines.”
In a 2021 report, the National Conference of State Legislatures said that about half of the states had some kind of dress code in place. In Georgia, suit coats for men and “dignified dress” for women were expected. And in Colorado, House members could wear “a suit coat or sport coat.”
In Missouri, State Representative Ashley Aune, a Democrat, said on the floor on Wednesday that a “gentleman in this room” had once questioned what she was wearing.
“You know what it feels like to have a bunch of men in this room looking at your top trying to decide whether it’s appropriate or not?” she said.
Ms. Aune then debated Ms. Kelley over the purpose of the revised rule. “I mean, this is ridiculous,” she said.
Ms. Kelley responded: “Why should we talk about something like this? It is absolutely ridiculous.”
“You brought this to the floor, lady,” Ms. Aune replied. “You tell me.”
Ms. Kelley originally did not include cardigans in her proposed rule, but the sweater was listed as acceptable in a final version of the resolution.
“Proper attire for women shall be business attire, including jackets worn with dresses, skirts, or slacks, and dress shoes or boots,” the resolution states. “For the purposes of this rule, ‘jacket’ shall include blazers, cardigans, and knit blazers.”
Representative Brenda Shields, a Republican, expressed support for the amendment on Wednesday, saying that the intention of the change was “just to clarify what we already have.”
“We don’t want anyone to have to be the clothing police,” Ms. Shields said.
After the vote, Ms. Kelley said on Facebook that she received “lots of hateful calls, emails, and messages in regards to this amendment, which is funny because we already have a dress code.”
She added that she had not wasted time when introducing the amendment because she had spoken for less than five minutes. At her office this week, Ms. Kelley said, she frequently answered phone calls and got “cussed at.”
“How is encouraging professionalism wrong?” she said.