Montana has a “citizen legislature” that meets for only 100 days every two years. Unlike Congress where well-off lawyers and businesspeople are the norm, most of Montana’s elected officials are middle-class ranchers, teachers, and community leaders. As a result, the Montana legislature looks and operates a bit differently, which is usually a good thing.
Over the past sixteen years, I’ve visited the legislature during every session. On my last two visits, I was struck by how shabbily some of the members and staff were dressed. A female legislator wearing thin black leggings with a blazer and t-shirt. Male legislators wearing black denim, plaid shirts, and fleece vests on the floor of the chamber. A senior staffer attending a meeting in navy sweatpants and sandals.
While most legislators dress appropriately, poorly dressed members and staff reflect negatively on the Legislature as a whole. I don’t expect Montana’s leaders to be turned out like a troupe of big city litigators, but leggings and sweatpants is not the image that I, as a Montana voter, want my legislature to project.
The Legislature recently adopted its first dress code for members and staff, and it was not well received by female legislators on the Democrat-side of the aisle. They call the code sexist, “something out of Mad Men,” and a “relic of the 1800s.” Some openly wonder if they’ll be made to kneel, ala Catholic school, to see if their skirts are long enough. But while many outlets are happy to report on the uproar, very few printed the actual dress code, choosing instead to excise certain sections out of context.
When I read the first negative Tweets about the dress code, I thought, “Dear God, what have they done now?” Because the Legislature is controlled by old, Republican men from conservative, rural communities, I expected the worst. But far from the sexist diatribe it’s depicted to be, the dress code is fairly innocuous.
The code informs legislators and staff that leggings and jeans are not dress pants. It bans flip-flops, fleece, and tennis shoes in the chamber. It reminds men that colored jeans are not business formal attire. And it asks women to be “sensitive” about necklines and hemlines.
Few people like being told how to dress, but many businesses, the U.S. Congress, and 1/3 of state legislatures have a dress code. The Montana dress code isn’t even as strict (or detailed) as the dress code adopted by our neighbors in Wyoming, which requires polished boots and has specific rules for bolo ties. Also, studies show that dressing professionally increases productivity and professionalism.
The way I see it, one blog in Montana ginned up a controversy to create pageviews and dozens of news outlets followed suit. While it’s fair to argue that a citizen legislature may not need a business formal dress code, cherry-picking sections to paint the code as misogynistic is disingenuous. It isn’t sexist to remind male and female employees (especially the early-twentysomething staffers who work the Legislature) what constitutes business attire.
As a woman, a Montanan, and a former politico, I don’t see what all the controversy is about. Why should elected officials be held to a lower standard of dress than the high-school students who work as their pages?