From the Muslim woman wearing a hijab, the Hollywood star wearing a see-through gown, the “modesty” programs of the Catholic Church for young women, the “shoulders covered” policy for reporters at the House of Representatives, or proper make up for aspiring corporate leaders, women continue to be bombarded with opinions on what is appropriate or inappropriate attire. This insistence upon the “correct” forms of female dress and make up is an example of the continued subjugation of women in the public arena.

Over many years and within many cultures insistence that women and girls dress “appropriately” has been a way to control women’s behavior in both the public and private spheres. Imagine trying to run from danger with bound feet, exercising in a hoopskirt, or speaking publicly while half-suffocated by a corset. Nineteenth century feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton made the connection thus: “Her tight waist and long trailing skirts deprive her of all freedom.”

What is more, focusing on a woman’s appearance or dress is a time-honored way of diminishing her credibility. For example, in the 1850s Amelia Bloomer promoted an outfit that later was named after her. The “bloomers” form of dress was basically pantaloons under a dress, so women could wear shorter skirts and move about more freely. While some praised the outfit as being healthy and practical, the wider society rejected it as a “usurpation of the rights of man,” in other words, incompatible with proper women’s roles in nineteenth century society. Eventually, bloomers became associated with the women’s rights movement. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other feminists were early adopters, but Stanton quickly abandoned it, as it provoked much public derision and she felt it was distracting from her message.

Things are much the same in the twenty-first century. We have recently observed much public discourse over appropriate and inappropriate forms of dress for women in the United States in the political, corporate, religious, and celebrity media cultures.

In the political realm, during the 2008 Presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton wore pantsuits, and Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin wore skirts.  Clinton was criticized for dressing in a “masculine” style and Palin was made into a quasi sex symbol for her attractive looks and more feminine clothing. Of course, Palin wasn’t immune to criticism either. The cost of her clothing and accessories  was scrutinized. Palin herself recognized the issue and was quoted as saying, " [It’s about] superficial things that they don't talk about with men, her wardrobe and her hairstyles. That's a bit of that double standard.”

Also, in the political realm, a news story recently highlighted the dress code for women covering the House of Representatives, where women were turned away from the “Speaker’s lobby” (a room designated for reporters) for wearing sleeveless dresses. It was considered inappropriate for shoulders to be uncovered, even in a hot and humid location like Washington, DC.

In the corporate arena, a recent issue of the St. Louis Business Journal proclaimed the advancement of women in St. Louis public companies. There were many laudatory articles on local women’s corporate advancement. However, in that same issue, an advertisement for a program on “Manners & Makeovers” offered to educate women on presenting a polished personal appearance, including the application of makeup for a professional daytime look.  The program was part of Maryville University’s “Women & Leadership” offering. Seriously? A University considering proper makeup part of women’s leadership?  Get your makeup right and you, too, can climb the corporate ladder?  Is Maryville’s sponsorship tantamount to agreeing that a woman should be judged by her looks? Or is it simply acknowledging how the world works and teaching women to cope with the (admittedly unfair) standards we are stuck with for the time being?

In exploring several religious areas, the “Manners & Makeovers” expert touts her involvement with a Catholic organization, Pure Fashion, which seeks to create a “fun, exciting and effective virtue formation program” for young girls.  The organization considers itself part of the “Modesty Movement” for women and girls. One of the core members of the Pure Fashion team, Brenda Shaman, shared her testimony of “her conversion to the Catholic Church, and how she invited Christ into her closet!”

Macy’s Department Stores recently discovered the lucrative Muslim market and have created a line of fashionable clothing incorporating the hijab. The hijab (headscarf) is somewhat controversial. Some see it as either positive or innocuous: a part of a religiously encouraged form of modesty, allowing women to be free from the lustful gazes of men. For other women, particularly American women, it is a symbol of oppression.

Looking at celebrities in the media, the female attendees at the Grammys and Golden Globes award shows are criticized for exposed cleavage, thighs and transparent gowns.

What does a modern woman choose—modesty or sexual objectification? How is the female political candidate to balance being likeable and exhibiting strength? Pants or short skirts?  Smiles or strong words? How is the Hollywood aspiring actress to pursue her need to be seen and appeal to casting directors? Is her sexual self-objectification necessary to procure publicity to advance her career?

Who constructs and maintains these dress codes?  Paul Ryan in the House of Representatives? Harvey Weinstein’s successors in Hollywood? The Catholic Church? Islam? A “Modesty and Manners” expert? If women hide their bodies, are they serving patriarchal interests?  Or if women flaunt their beautiful bodies and become sexual objects, who does that serve? I suggest both options serve men.

Do these conflicted attitudes about proper women’s attire mirror our cultural conflict about women as leaders?  Should women adopt the burqa so that our bodies are hidden and only our faces are visible? Or should we just take classes on the proper daytime professional makeup?  These are weighty questions to be considered with the utmost deliberation.   

A better question might be, why are women’s wardrobes being policed? Women have been oppressed by the continual and conflicting judgments of what is and what is not proper attire.    Who invited the patriarchy into our closets?  I don’t think he was invited, but he keeps elbowing his way in.

If Not Us, Who? If Not Now, When?: Living In The Middle Of History

by Rebecca Now

It was one hundred years ago, 1917, when the first woman penetrated that all-male body, the U.S. House of Representatives. Jeannette Rankin, Republican of Montana, took her seat on March 4, 1917. Imagine her walking to her seat that day. I wonder, did her new colleagues provide her a warm welcome or did they snub her? So here we are, in 2017. Have we “come a long way, baby,” as the vintage 1968 ad slogan for a cigarette marketed to women proclaimed?

By Rebecca Now

As we begin to celebrate the reemergence of the verdant earth after its Winter dormancy, it seems a good time to explore the history and evolution of the concept of Ecofeminism. I admit only recently being introduced to this term, and to help understand it, I have called on Webster University professor of English and Chair of the University’s Sustainability Committee, Karla Armbruster, Ph.D. She has written and presented on the subject of ecofeminism, and I met with her recently.

RN: What is ecofeminism and how did this term first come to be?

KA: French feminist Françoise D'Eaubonne is credited with coining the word ecofeminism in 1974. She came up with it as part of a quest to describe the epic violence inflicted on women and nature as a result of male domination. She did not have much influence other than that, but a number of disciplines and movements have contributed to the diverse ideas and practices that make up ecofeminism.

RN: Tell me about those ideas.

KA: Sometimes ecofeminism is viewed simplistically as meaning that women are closer to nature because of their bodily functions (menstruation, childbirth, nursing), while man’s physiology frees him to take up projects of culture; woman’s body seems to doom her to mere reproduction, while man is free to take up activities such as traveling, hunting, warfare, public affairs. However, most ecofeminist thinkers hold more complex views.

RN: And what are those views?

KA: Ecofeminism has evolved from diverse sources, including not only environmentalism and feminism, but also socialism, philosophy, and women's spirituality. There is also a more activist aspect of ecofeminism that comes out of movements against toxics, against nuclear weapons, and for animal rights. Because of these multiple origins and influences, there are many different facets to ecofeminism. However, most, if not all, ecofeminist thought and practice starts with the phenomenon that women and nature have often been culturally linked and that this link has been used to dominate both. In The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters, for example, Annette Kolodny discusses early American culture to show how the feminization of nature has primarily functioned to justify and even naturalize the domination and exploitation of nature. (The association of women with nature has similarly functioned to justify and naturalize their domination by men.) Understanding and working against domination is perhaps the most central concern of ecofeminism. However, ecofeminists do more than critique instances of the woman-nature connection (in fact, some celebrate it). So what do they all have in common? Ecofeminists like to use metaphors of webs and weaving, so I will borrow that metaphor and say that the common thread running through all ecofeminist thought and action is a belief that the oppression of women and destruction and misuse of nature are connected and a commitment to challenging the forces that work against both.

RN: It seems to me that ecofeminists are working toward holistic thinking on a range of topics, is that the case?

KA: Yes. For many ecofeminists, the first step is recognizing the dualisms that structure our thinking about not just gender and nature but also race, and all sorts of other categories, such as: • man/woman • human/nonhuman • culture/nature • mind/matter • soul/body • rationality/emotion • white/of color It’s fairly obvious that those categories on the left have typically been valued over those on the right in Western cultures, so these are hierarchical dualisms. What ecofeminists emphasize, though, is that the devaluation of each category on the right does not occur in isolation, that these devaluations, which legitimize domination, are interconnected. The most powerful approaches to ecofeminism reject the entire mindset of dualism and hierarchy.

RN: I find it interesting to note that women did not gain equal voting rights with men until the Industrial Revolution, with New Zealand in 1893, the United States in 1920, and France in 1944. So it seems to me that moving from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy was a major factor in advancing women’s rights.

KA: I would say that women were disadvantaged in social standing when they were living closer to nature, but some of them still found ways to speak up for themselves, other animals, and the natural world.

RN: What kind of activism is happening today under the model of Ecofeminism?

In 1974, a group of about thirty women in the Himalayas of Northern India united to save more than 10,000 square miles of forest watershed. Deforestation in the Himalayan forests had caused landslides, flooding and major soil erosion and had forced women villagers to hike further and further up the mountains to gather fuel. Now known as the Chipko Movement, Hindi for "to cling," the name reflects the protesters' practice of throwing their arms around the trunks of trees marked for chopping and refusing to move. This practice and term later became popular in other areas of the world and was popularly called "tree-hugging."

RN: Thank you Professor Armbruster, for sharing this with Women’s Journal readers. As we celebrate this time of rejoicing in Earth Day and revitalizing ecological awareness and activism, I encourage readers to check out the excellent documentary on Rachel Carson on PBS. films/RachelCarsonsSilentSpring/ Rachel was a giant in ecofeminism before the term was even coined. She changed the conversation in the United States, with the publication of Silent Spring in 1962 and it rippled worldwide. This reserved, some would say shy, scientist changed our thinking about the environment and led to the regulation of pesticides. Let’s Celebrate Our History!


Women Who Mean Business – Now and Then
by Rebecca Now


Since the Women’s Journal encourages and supports women entrepreneurs, I thought it would be fun to examine two St. Louis women entrepreneurs from history, one in the 19th century and one in the 20th century, who both made a fortune and became philanthropists.