Monday, January 25, 2016

Lightning Posts, 1/25/16: On the Politeness of an Armed Society, Zika Virus and Women, and Kansas Senate Dress Codes for Women

1.  From the "armed society is a polite society" files:  A good Samaritan was shot dead by an inebriated driver.  That horrible story points out some troubling aspects of the politeness that an armed society could create, such as simply avoiding all other people, just in case.  Including your own mother.

2.  The rapid spread of the Zika virus which can cause the child of a woman who was infected while pregnant to be born with microcephaly has led the government of El Salvador to recommend that Salvadorian women just not get pregnant until 2018.

Abortion is illegal in El Salvador, even in the case where the mother's life is at stake, and the linked NYT article argues that most pregnancies there are unplanned.  The Catholic Church is very strong and not especially fond of contraception.  But never mind!  At least the government cannot now be blamed when a wave of microcephalic babies are born.

The point, of course, is that it's the women to whom they are born who bear the brunt of both the blame and the burden of care and the suffering.  Gender politics link to other politics.

3.  We are still in Kansas, Dorothy (a silly reference to the Wizard of Oz):

A dress code imposed by a Kansas Senate committee chairman that prohibits women testifying on bills from wearing low-cut necklines and miniskirts is drawing bipartisan ridicule from female legislators.
Sen. Mitch Holmes' 11-point code of conduct does not include any restrictions on men, who he said needed no instruction on how to look professional, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported.
This is where I start salivating!  The whole wonderful topic of how to police women's dress, whether women should be covered or revealed, whether women who do the former are chaste and modest, while the women who do the latter are sluts and whores!  I so want to write a book about it but life is short. 

Historically, the dress of women has always been a burning political issue, and it still is a burning political and religious issue in Islam and among US fundamentalist Christians, and, it seems, among some Kansas Senators.

Historically, how women dress has always been used as an indicator of their sexual modesty and sexual availability or lack of it.  And historically, too (check the Bible), it has always been very important that women do not "cross-dress,"  because that makes the messages their clothes send much harder to interpret, beginning with the importance of being able to assign someone to a gender wherever men and women are treated differently.

But the last hundred years in the industrialized West have changed that policing.  The changes are still fluid and some final kind of assessment is impossible.  What I see are several different patterns emerging, including the pattern where men and women dress more alike and the pattern where women are allowed to dress more comfortably than in the past.

But I also see a very different pattern:  One, in which women are in some sense expected to dress in the very ways the conservative codes ban, to be viewed as desirable and admired, to be viewed as fashionable and "in."  All choices about our dress take place within cultures, and no choice is ultimately completely "free."  As I see it, the cultural signals about proper dress for women in the West are now many, often contradictory, and difficult to tease apart in their final impact*.

*Take the bit in the above quote about men knowing how to look professional.  That's partly, because men have a rigid uniform for political work, women do not, and that leaves the question of professional dress for women wide open.

From one angle the expected male uniform in places of power is discrimination against men.  Why can't men dress as they wish in the Kansas Senate hearings?

But what if dressing as you "wish" (see the above discussion about what might drive our ideas) means that people will then use your clothes to judge your sluttiness or the desirability of your body?  What if some people would like you to bare a bit more leg before they are willing to listen to you (Fox News)?  What if people will respond to your choice of more relaxed clothing like this:

"It's one of those things that's hard to define," Holmes said. "Put it out there and let people know we're really looking for you to be addressing the issue rather than trying to distract or bring eyes to yourself." 
That quote from the article about dress codes for women crystallizes the problem for me:  Holmes uses the traditional angle in which women's dress is seen as having sexual implications, whether it is meant to do that or not.  But the topic is more complicated than that, and that's why I wrote that it would take a book.