Women of the 116th Congress: Looking Good

I can’t stop looking at the New York Times special feature, “Redefining Representation: The Women of the 116th Congress.

This gallery of 130 — of the 131 — female senators and representatives is a celebration of racial, ethnic, religious and geographical diversity. It’s full of firsts: first Native American women (plural!), first Muslim women (plural!), first bi-sexual atheist, first black congresswomen from Massachusetts and Connecticut.

This is what American women look like.

This is also what American women dress like. Not when you’re making a midnight run for diapers or going to a wedding. More like when you’re off to a birthday dinner at a tablecloth restaurant, when you glance in the mirror on the way out the door and smile.

For some of us, the mirror reflects a sharp black leather jacket, for others, it’s a sleeveless cocktail dress, for many, it’s a blouse in a flattering color, with a nice necklace or a scarf for flair. American women wear hijabs, hats, ponytails, luxuriant crowns of braids, wigs, and sometimes, a bald head. We go for bright red lipstick, no lipstick, sensible flats and four-inch-heels.

Options for female self-presentation have long been limited to mother or whore. Rosie the Riveter had her moment, but most women in public service tended to go as gender-neutral as possible. Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright achieved success and widespread respect while dressed in discreetly tailored versions of a man’s dark suit.

Wouldn’t it be great if the diversity of fashion choices represented by these 131 women could tamp down the toxic commentary about what female politicians, and first ladies — and the rest of us — wear?

Maybe we’re at the beginning of the end to nasty wisecracks about the “hotness” of Sarah Palin and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (Weird to see those two in the same sentence, right?) Likewise, I would love to see an end to the relentless rap of dowdiness laid upon so many others and especially Hillary Clinton, who, no matter what she wore, rarely caught a break from the fashion police of public opinion. And that, I’m sorry to say, includes me.

Women in office have gone from being unicorns, to rare exceptions, to tokens, to outliers, to this wave of 131, who are no longer enjoined to hide the female details of their lives, including children, grandchildren, divorces, breast cancer, and #metoo moments. These are women who range from 29- to 84-years-old, and who dress their age (as they see fit) and who dress to express their culture, their personal aesthetic and their sense of self.

Emma Goldman, a writer and anarchist organizer during the early 20th century, once famously said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

By coming to Washington in these numbers and with so much diversity, the Women of the 116th Congress are making a revolution. And they are wearing their dancing shoes.


WBUR Cognoscenti Jan 18, 2019


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