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I didn’t live through the women’s power suit thing back in the 80s, but I’m old enough to remember the faux ties and shoulder pads women were expected to wear while climbing the corporate ladder in four inch heels. While in paralegal school, a considerable amount of training went into answering the question of “what should we wear to the office?”

When I started working in law offices back in the mid-90s, the mimeographed dress code to which we working girls were expected to adhere was very comprehensive:

  • business professional attire
  • dress slacks (a huge bit of progress – only a decade prior women were prohibited from wearing pants of any kind, including pantsuits)
  • skirt, skirt suit, or dress with stockings
  • no bare legs
  • no tank tops, sleeveless tops, or halter tops
  • no open toe shoes
  • no khaki pants
  • neatly styled hair (yes that was actually in there)
  • no chipped nail polish (and this one was, too)

The men’s dress code was: wear a shirt and tie; no athletic shoes.

Beyond what was specifically enumerated, a woman who wore flats might have earned a tsk-tsk from the office manager, for they were too casual.

Over the years the dress code relaxed a bit. Some firms allowed women to enjoy fresh air on their legs and go stockingless in the summer only. Others allowed open-toed shoes, but only if worn with stockings and manicured toenails. One firm even allowed women to wear khaki pants (!!!), after it was pointed out that men had been wearing khaki pants to the office for years.

Of course, all of this applied to inside the office only. If you were heading out into the world for a meeting or court, the more conservative dress code still applied.

A lot of ink has been spilled over what is appropriate professional attire, and it’s a question that still comes up in my paralegal networking groups on a weekly basis. We all have our ideas of what is appropriate and what is not appropriate.

But appropriateness is beside the point here.

My objection to the recent kerfluffle in the Speaker’s lobby isn’t that the dress code is too restrictive. My problem with it is that it is sexist in the most oppressive way possible, and Paul Ryan used it to silence a female member of the press:

A young, female reporter recently tried to enter a guarded room known as the Speaker’s lobby outside the House chamber, but her outfit was considered inappropriate because her shoulders weren’t covered. She was wearing a sleeveless dress.

Forced to improvise, she ripped out pages from her notebook and stuffed them into her dress’s shoulder openings to create sleeves, witnesses said. An officer who’s tasked with enforcing rules in the Speaker’s lobby said her creative concoction still was not acceptable.


She ripped pages out from her notebook to create sleeves. Unbelievable.

So, what is the actual dress code for women, anyway?

The answer to this question can be found in the notes under Jefferson’s Manual and Rules of the House of Representatives, Section 622 (p. 337):

Questions having been raised concerning proper attire for Members in the Chamber (thermostat controls having been raised to comply with a Presidential directive conserving energy in the summer months), the Speaker announced he considered traditional attire for Members appropriate, including coats and ties for male Members and appropriate attire for female Members, but that he would recognize for a question of privileges of the House to relax such standards. The Speaker also requested a Member in violation of those standards to remove himself from the Chamber and appear in appropriate attire, and refused to recognize such Member until he did so (Speaker O’Neill, July 17, 1979, p. 19008). The House later agreed to a resolution (presented as a question of the privileges of the House) requiring Members to wear proper attire as determined by the Speaker (July 17, 1979, p. 19072).

It’s also discussed in the notes under Section 962, Decorum of Members in the Hall (p. 762):

In the 96th Congress the Speaker announced that he considered as proper the customary and traditional attire for Members, including a coat and tie for male Members and appropriate attire for female Members (where thermostat controls had been raised in the summer to conserve energy); the House then adopted a resolution, offered as a question of the privileges of the House, requiring Members to wear proper attire as determined by the Speaker…

The answer to the question of what is appropriate attire for women is: Whatever the Speaker says is appropriate.

Creating a women’s dress code subject to someone’s whim is oppressive. Back when this rule was made, I’m sure the assumption was that the Speaker would always be a straight white man. You can see how this might be problematic, right?

I don’t have the answer to what the appropriate dress code should be, but “whatever the Speaker says according to his mood that day” is woefully inadequate.

This dress code isn’t new. But Nancy Pelosi didn’t send people home. John Boenner simply issued a reminder. Paul Ryan, however, used a dress code technicality to silence a female member of the press.

The Speaker has ability to relax dress code standards. They’ve been relaxed for Michelle Obama, Michelle Bachman, and Ivanka Trump, all of whom have appeared on the House floor wearing sleeveless garments.

This wasn’t simply dress code enforcement. This was a power play.

Once again we see the disgraceful priorities of this administration on full display.

Black Feminist Power Crochet/Knitting Chart

I really didn’t come here to talk about dress codes, though.

I came here to share a pattern. Here’s a link to the chart.

This project started out as a scarf in about Novemberish, and I had planned to publish a whole scarf pattern when I completed it.

The scarf has not materialized, and will not. However, I’m sharing the chart that you may use as you’d like subject to the discussion of the symbol’s history below.

The symbol part of the chart is 18″ by 8″, and could be incorporated into anything from a sweater to a scarf to a public yarn installation.

black feminist power crochet and knitting chart

I need to include a little background about the symbol, since when I created it I had a limited understanding of its history. It was created in the 60s and was often associated with the “radical feminist” movement.

As with many things, my understanding was incorrect.  Or was it? Either way it’s the subject of a LOT of debate.

This symbol was created by black feminists in the 60s.

Or, this symbol was created by the New York Radical Women (a predominantly white organization) for use during a protest of the Miss America Pageant in 1968.

Both these origin stories can be true. What matters most, though, is that the symbol was clearly derived from the raised fist image used by the Black Power movement.

If you’re going to use this chart for whatever purpose, it’s really important to acknowledge the symbol’s origins and be aware that it is subject to criticism as being culturally appropriated. If you’re a white person, you shouldn’t use this symbol regardless of who you believe created it.

While this symbol is commonly used as a representation of generic feminism or radical feminism, it belongs to black feminists. Full stop.

I’d thought about just not publishing the chart, but decided instead to move forward and use it for educational purposes. Since this symbol and similar charts for this image frequently get incorporated into crochet and knitting patterns, I felt it was important to highlight this issue.

As designers and creators we should do our best to be mindful of whether our designs might be appropriation. And, if we’re going to include symbols in our work, we need to be sure we understand the full context of the symbol we’re using.


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