By Terry Donnelly
I am no Christian Dior. In fact, I’m a plus-size male whose only brush with fashion is knowing not to wear horizontal stripes. I’m basically clueless, but, with fashion, like art and music, I know what I like. And, I really liked what I saw on the floor of the United States Congress on Jan. 3.
In years past, photos from the gallery above the floor showed a monolithic mass of solid, drab hues. The greys were notable because they represented both suit and hair color. Last Thursday’s display looked like a kaleidoscope from above. The metaphor of moving away from meh to megawatt-brilliant could not be ignored. Women came to the 116th Congress in record numbers and they chose to make their presence known and intent clear with a fashion statement.
25 women senators [17 Democrats and 8 Republicans. Up nearly threefold from nine (6 Dems and 3 Reps) in 2000.], and 102 female representatives [89 Democrats and 13 Republicans. Close to double the 56 (39 Dems and 17 Reps.) 18 years ago.] are both records. Not only are there record numbers, there is record diversity of color, religion, heritage, and sexual preference. All of this was overtly on display at the swearing-in ceremony. As evidence, an array of books was available for swearing-in including the Bible, a Koran, and even a law book that included the Constitution of the United States.
Many of the newly elected men have interesting and poignant stories behind their decisions to run for office, but it is the women who are rightfully getting all the attention. For years I have held the opinion that women should rule the country; ever since I first saw a woman deftly execute the undeniably brilliant slight-of-hand by taking off her bra without removing her shirt.
New representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) wore a traditional Palestinian thobe, or kaftan, to honor childhood memories of her mother embroidering the garments for her family. Ilhan Omar, the Somalian refugee from Minnesota, wore her hijab. Rep. Barbra Lee (D-CA) has been a member of Congress since 1998 was sworn in wearing a colorful kente cloth stole celebrating her African-American heritage.
One of the two newly elected Native Americans, Rep. Debra Haaland (D-NM), showcased turquoise jewelry, not only as a fashion statement and symbol of her original American heritage, but to begin to fulfill her campaign promise to focus attention on the large numbers of missing Native American women.
There was a lot of white in the crowd to contrast the drab suits that still represent three quarters of our elected officials. But the color choice by these women was intended for more than standing out. The women wanted to remind folks that this year will mark the centennial of sending the 19th Amendment to states for ratification. Women’s suffrage was finally legalized in 1920.
There were two women who chose to show their fashion sense in a more whimsical manner. Returning Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi chose a bright fuchsia dress to honor the newly minted status of pink as a women’s power color. From the pink ribbons that symbolize serious women’s health issues to the pink, knit pussy-hats that women donned to stick their fingers in Donald Trump’s eye during the highly efficacious Women’s March the day after his 2017 inauguration, women are claiming the once demur, feminine color as their own.
The other woman who chose a breezy outfit was Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) who gained the highly unusual status as Arizona’s senior senator on her first day in the upper house. Her election opponent, Martha McSally (R-AZ) was appointed to finish out Sen. John McCain’s term when Sen. Jon Kyle (R-AZ) retired at the end of the 115th Congress, rendering Sinema’s earlier November election senior status. Sen. Sinema chose to display her blonde hair in retro curls a la 1930s movie icon Jean Harlow and sported a fitted, printed skirt, sleeveless blouse, and faux fur stole. She removed the stole exposing her shoulders when she stood with Vice President Mike Pence for her swearing-in photo op. Pence seemed visibly uncomfortable standing close to the woman, not his wife, who looked like a movie-star on the red carpet, and is unabashed in her bisexuality and atheism. Sinema has the educational chops to back up her brashness and have her opinions seriously considered. She was her high school valedictorian at age 16, a Brigham Young University graduate at 18, and has since earned a Masters of Social Work, a law degree, and a Ph.D.
The rock-star winner of her 14th district, New York house seat, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got her attention on day one, not for her outfit, which was white and in line with others celebrating women’s suffrage, but from a dismal display of political ineptness by the opposition. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez has drawn a lot of notoriety as the youngest woman ever elected and her strong left-wing positions on political issues. Republicans tried to dismiss her as a lightweight poser by posting a video from her college days showing her in spitzzerinctum dancing on the school roof. In fact, it was part of a group reenactment of a dance from The Breakfast Club. How dare her dance and have fun with friends. In fact, she was a serious student with a Boston University degree in economics and international relations.
The show on the floor of Congress was colorful and entertaining, but the work and the real test are just beginning. Good luck to this most diverse and potentially impressive 116th Congress. They have serious challenges ahead, but it appears that hope has reemerged as prevailing thought.
Terry Donnelly is a retired teacher. He taught in public schools in Kentucky, Michigan, and Colorado. He was an adjunct faculty member instructing teachers and teacher trainees at Michigan State University, University of Colorado, and Adams State College in Colorado.