Emily Dickinson. (Helen Tansey/Globe and Mail Update)
Emily Dickinson is an actress and freelance writer based in Toronto.
I got this text from my mother recently:
“It annoys me to see Chrystia Freeland wearing a tight dress and pearls. I’m just like – if you’re going to be a ball-busting foreign minister – wear a pair of pants. It’s sexist to say but I think to be in a man’s world and get taken seriously (right now, early days) a pink dress and pearls isn’t going to cut it.”
Despite being embarrassed that we were engaging in a morning argument over another woman’s outfit, I saw a bigger issue.
My core issue with this text, and the kind of limitations it implies, is that expecting Ms. Freeland to wear pants is saying: Yes, women can do big jobs just like men, but they can’t be too feminine while doing it.
This archaic way of thinking needs to be replaced with the earth-shaking concept that women should be allowed to be themselves, whatever that means to them. (I refer to the word “women” as inclusive to all self-identifying women, in all shapes and sizes, from all walks of life.) The next step toward true equality is allowing women to express as much femininity as they wish – and not just in their clothing choices – and be respected for it.
This is not to devalue my mother’s opinion. She grew up in a small town in the 1970s, and for her, being a feminist meant fitting in with men to gain their respect. My mother has always been rebellious and progressive. When I was a little girl, I would worry about the other kids thinking she was a boy because of her short hair. She wore army jackets and combat boots. She didn’t care what people thought of her (and she cares even less now). I wasn’t really surprised by her opinion about the pink dress. She is empowered in her self-expression and, in her experience, presenting oneself as too feminine warrants disrespect.
In 1977, John T. Molloy wrote The Women’s Dress for Success Book, which used drawings of various styles of women’s clothing, hairstyles and accessories to gain statistics on how men reacted to them. He uses this information to make “scientific claims” to help women succeed in the workplace. In the book, he states it’s “not sexism; it’s realism.” He speaks about the importance of a pantsuit and low heels, yet also states explicitly that women should not be too masculine to “fit in.” In a nutshell, women shouldn’t be too feminine or too masculine. They should, essentially, just be neutral. This 1970s how-to book is laughable, but so many of these limiting “rules” seem to still haunt women today.
I wonder how much of my personal style is based on societal pressure to come off as more “masculine” (or at least what we popularly think of as masculine, since masculinity and femininity are shifting constructs). I have a stereotypically feminine way of being – I am extremely sensitive and emotional – and I haven’t always felt empowered to be that way. I never thought I’d see the day that I was arguing for someone else’s right to go back to the dress, but by denying women the chance to wear what they want and be who they want, we’re just contributing to a system that shames femininity. Simply put: What a woman is wearing doesn’t represent her intelligence or capability to do her job.
The text from my mother reminded me of a debate at an International Women’s Day event this year. One panelist – a successful music producer – was advised at the beginning of her career to wear dark, masculine clothing in order to be taken seriously in a male-dominated industry. She encouraged the crowd to do the same, which sparked a lot of questions. I wondered if, had she ignored this advice, she would be sitting on that panel. Her choice to adhere to these “rules” meant gaining respect and power in her industry. Had she not done that, would she have been as successful?
“Even when women used the same career advancement strategies – doing all the things they have been told will help them get ahead – they advanced less than their male counterparts and had slower pay growth.” A report from Catalyst, The Myth of the Ideal Worker: Does Doing All The Right Things Really Get Women Ahead? shows the sad truth that, even as women change their behaviour for the sake of their careers, it’s still not resulting in equality.
These experiences leave me with questions about systemic sexism, the sexism that women engage in against other women and the beliefs entrenched in our hearts that limit us. Moving forward, I believe that we need to be grateful for where our foremothers have brought us, and we need to fight for a new level of equality. Men and women are not the same. Everyone deserves the same kind of respect and acknowledgment because of this, not in spite of it.
I wonder: Did Ms. Freeland choose this bright pink dress to make a point? It’s a stereotypically female colour, and conveniently the theme colour of the Women’s March. I like to think she did. Maybe she just liked the dress, and it has no political weight whatsoever. Maybe (although highly unlikely) she just grabbed the first thing she saw on a hectic morning.
I don’t think it matters.