Missouri has been lampooned nationally over a debate on the dress code for female members of the state House. (Illustration: Midjourney)

OPINION |

On Jan. 11, state Rep. Ann Kelley, a Republican from Lamar, thought she would do everyone a favor and clarify the dress code for women when doing the people’s business in the Missouri House.

She was wrong.

I thought about inserting here in this story what the wording was and what it is now — after Jan. 11 — but I’m certain you would still be confused. I know I am.

Kelley’s effort prompted major blowback, and, according to the New York Times, she heard from angry people across the nation standing up for women.

I read various media reports on what happened — including newspapers I greatly respect, the New York Times and Washington Post — but couldn’t really understand what had changed.

Missouri House Democrats were blasting the change as “misogynist” and linking it to an overall male agenda of “pro life.”

Yet, I watched a video of the discussion and it seemed to me that nothing had changed, despite the reporting.

So I called Crystal Quade, Springfield Democrat and minority floor leader and asked: What am I missing?

She tells me that, in fact, nothing changed regarding the dress code.

As long as she has been in the House, she has been required to wear a blazer when on the floor. She has the option of a cardigan sweater.

A “second covering” for women was mandated two years ago, she says.

Male House members for many years have had to wear a sports coat and a tie.

For her, the real issue is this:

“As a legislator, I go there to talk about policy and not to have to worry about what I am wearing,” Quade says. “People across the country are shocked about the fact that we spent an hour even talking about it.”

Instead, she says, she would have preferred discussing how to make the House accessible to those who use wheelchairs.

What’s a blazer? What’s a bishop sleeve?

Kelley co-sponsored her women’s dress code “clarification” with State Rep. Brenda Shields, a St. Joseph Republican.

(Republicans have a super-majority in the Missouri House of 111 to 52. Men make up roughly 70 percent of the total.)

Kelley and Shields’ effort failed miserably.

Sure, it was approved by their Republican brethren. But nationally, the Missouri House was lampooned as backward and anti-women.

I watched a Youtube video of the debate, which included on-the-floor definitions of a “cardigan” and a “blazer.”

In case you didn’t know, a blazer has to have a lapel.

I even heard mention of a “bishop sleeve.”

I looked it up: It’s a long sleeve that is gathered at the bottom with a button cuff, slit and facing, which is the lining at the end of a garment.

During the discussion, a state representative was asked to stand so, in large part, she could display her blue cardigan.

Outfitted in a suitable blazer, House Minority Floor Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, addresses the House on Feb. 24, 2022. (Photo by Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Everyone agreed debate was a waste of time

Both sides agreed the dress-code discussion was a monumental waste of time, which it was.

Of course, they blamed each other.

Here’s what I think happened and why I believe much of it was political theater.

Female House members have always had to have their arms covered. That’s not news. No one complained about that long-standing rule on Jan. 11.

No one was complaining about the “second covering” requirement for women, Quade says. After all, men must wear a sports coat.

But the problem on Jan. 11, Quade tells me, is that Shields and Kelley, in their effort to “clarify” things, decided to suddenly describe a “cardigan” as a “knitted jacket.”

As someone who deals in words, I have no idea why they thought that was clarifying.

I have cardigans and not once in my life have I called them a “knitted jacket.”

Many Democratic members in the House apparently thought the new language eliminated cardigan sweaters, which are the only option to the blazer, Quade says.

In the proposed amendment, instead of the word “cardigan” there were now the words “knitted jacket.”

Amendment amended, “cardigan” back in

Kelley said that there was nothing in her new “clarifying language” that would ban women from wearing cardigans.

Nothing, if you ask me, other than calling it a “knitted jacket.”

Shields realized what was happening and stepped in to amend the language so the word “cardigan” was added. Never, she said, was the intent to exclude cardigans.

Kelley says female freshman members routinely told they must wear a jacket

A New York Times story says that after the Jan. 11 debacle, Kelley received a deluge of hate mail — electronic and otherwise — from outraged citizens across the nation standing up for women.

At one point, according to the Times, Kelley explained on Facebook that freshman female House members were instructed by House Administrator Dana Rademan Miller that females had to wear blazers.

The discussion on Jan. 11, via Youtube, makes it clear that that is not accurate. They had the cardigan option.

The Times story states Kelley had posted on Facebook that House Administrator Miller “for many years” has wanted to make blazers a requirement.

The Times story provided a link to these comments on Kelley’s FB page, but when I tried it Friday, the link was disabled.

Never good idea to tell women how to dress

You’re probably wondering: Do these dress code rules matter?

Yes, you can be pulled from the floor during a key House debate — doing the business of representing approximately 37,000 people — for not wearing a tie, if you’re a man, or for having bare shoulders, if you’re a woman.

In my view, men are on razor-thin ice when making rules on what women may wear.

Yes, I understand the two sponsors, in this case, were Republican women.

Nevertheless, women are on ice almost as thin when telling other women what appropriate attire is.

I’ll close with this quote from State Rep. Ashley Aune, a Democrat from Kansas City, who spoke on the House floor.

“I have personally been called into question, offline, about what I was wearing, although I was following rules. But it was some gentleman in this room, who decided that they wanted to question what I was wearing. Do you know what it feels like to have a bunch of men in this room looking at your top, trying to decide if it’s appropriate or not?”

This is Pokin Around column No. 91.

Steve Pokin

Steve Pokin writes the Pokin Around and The Answer Man columns for the Springfield Daily Citizen. He also writes about criminal justice issues. He can be reached at spokin@sgfcitizen.org. His office line is 417-837-3661. More by Steve Pokin