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Dresses for power

By March 10, 2014 2 Comments

I am angry that women are not taken seriously – all too often, based on how they look.

If women were taken seriously, state senator Wendy Davis wouldn’t face ridicule from her own colleagues for daring to both be a mother and have a career in politics. Star tennis player Eugenie Bouchard wouldn’t be interviewed, after a victory at the Australian Open, about which man she would like to date. There wouldn’t need to be a Slate column criticizing years of obsessive media attention to the haircuts and clothing choices of the likes of Hillary Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg.

You said it, Iggy. (maybe)

You said it, Iggy. (maybe)

In the words of Slate’s Amanda Hess, these examples show that too often, women are treated in the media as “women first and people second.”

So many of these examples focus on frivolities – emphasizing women’s appearance rather than their accomplishments – that it is tempting to dismiss traditionally “girly” aspects of women’s appearance, as if the high heels and makeup these articles critique are themselves the problem.

But treating “girly” things (or, worse yet, the girls and women who enjoy them) as inferior only makes the problem worse. It is just another way of saying that high heels are a reasonable indicator of a woman’s worth – and not only that, but also an indicator that a woman has less worth.

It is a way of saying that things associated with women are inferior.

Architect Kelly Hayes-McAlonie turns this idea on its head. In her inspiring TEDx talk, she talks about the power of dresses: for 19th century architect Louise Bethune, who defied social norms and visited construction sites while wearing dresses, and for herself, when dresses became the only piece of clothing she could put on by herself after a debilitating illness.

[media url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6G_Qg-rvfw”]

Hayes-McAlonie coined the term “power dress:” to describe Bethune’s demands for equality despite being required to wear dresses, and to describe the way dresses allowed her to return to her career after recovering from illness. “

Power dress” means the power to make people rethink what women can do – the power to be whatever you want to be, not only what other people are willing to let you be. To be a woman AND a person.

To the reporters and writers who try to dismiss Hillary Clinton by talking about her clothes instead of her ideas: just listen to Kelly Hayes McAlonie.

Sasha Albert holds a Master’s degree in Gender and Sexuality from the University of Amsterdam, and participates in reproductive health and justice activism in the Boston area.