In a unique protest, over 30 US Congresswomen on both sides of the aisle wore sleeveless dresses to support their “right to bare arms” in parts of Washington DC’s Capitol building. The lawmakers staged the protest on Friday against the dress code in the Speaker’s Lobby, a room bordering the House chamber where lawmakers congregate between votes and where reporters conduct interviews. The long-standing code for the room has required women — reporters and lawmakers — to wear dresses and blouses with sleeves if they want to enter. The rule also requires men to wear jackets and ties, CNN reported. “It’s 2017 and women vote, hold office, and choose their own style. Time to update House Rules to reflect the times!” tweeted Congress member Chellie Pingree. “The rules are kind of archaic — if we just went by tradition in this chamber then we wouldn’t have a women’s bathroom off the floor,” California Democrat Linda Sanchez said, referring to the lack of a women’s bathroom off the floor until recent years. A recent CBS news report about the uneven adherence to the dress code and the story of an unnamed young, female reporter barred from the room because her dress did not have sleeves kicked off an online debate, particularly among journalists.
On Wednesday, Martha McSally, a Republican lawmaker from Arizona, made reference to the strict dress code in the Speaker’s Lobby at the end of remarks on the House floor about first responders in her state. “Before I yield back, I want to point out I’m standing here in my professional attire, which happens to be a sleeveless dress and open-toed shoes,” McSally said on the House floor. “With that, Mr Speaker, I yield back.” McSally’s comments helped spark Friday’s bipartisan response, which California Democratic Representative Jackie Speier promoted among the Democratic caucus. New York Democratic Representative Kathleen Rice used the “sleeveless Friday” protest to make her case for more cooperation between female Democrats and Republicans in the House. “Any issue like this that can bring people together I think is a good opportunity to remind us that we really are here to work together and there’s more that unites us than divides us,” said Rice. “Women are such problem-solvers — not that men aren’t, but women just have such a different sensibility.”
On Thursday, Speaker Paul Ryan’s office responded to the controversy by agreeing that the dress code “could stand to be a bit modernized.” Ryan said to “look for a change on that soon.” In a tweet, Ryan’s national press secretary AshLee Strong urged members to “focus on substantive issues” after pointing to Ryan’s announcement about a forthcoming policy change. Ryan did not specifically detail what would change about the dress code. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi applauded Ryan’s announcement about changing the rule. “Glad to see @SpeakerRyan is updating the dress code for the House Floor. These unwritten rules are in desperate need of updates,” she tweeted on Thursday. In the UK, a similar debate recently erupted when House of Commons Speaker John Bercow said he was happy to relax the rules, the BBC reported.
In June, he accepted a question from a member of parliament who was not wearing a tie. He also said members should wear “business like attire”. Yet what this constitutes in 2017 – especially with the rise of more casual media and tech companies – is not always clear, the report said.