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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Sexism Seen in Senator’s Tips to ‘Ladies’

TOPEKA, Kan. (CN) - A Kansas state senator has come under fire for insisting that "lady" lobbyists eschew low-cut necklines and miniskirts at committee hearings, though he had no suggestions for men.

State Sen. Mitch Holmes, R-St. John, who drafted the guidelines, is chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee.

St. John, pop. 1,262, is in rural south-central Kansas.

"Conferees should be dressed in professional attire. For ladies, low cut necklines and mini-skirts are inappropriate," Holmes' guidelines state for conferees who appear before his committee.

Holmes made national headlines last week when the Topeka Capitol Journal reported on his gender-specific directive. After the story was published, Holmes questioned the Capitol Journal reporter's patriotism.

"A particular reporter, one known for not joining in the pledge of allegiance, decided to make an issue of the committee rules I use," Holmes wrote on his Facebook page.

The Kansas City Star followed up with a story asking female legislators in Kansas for comments.

State Sen. Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City, told the Star she was "a little offended" by Holmes' focus on women.

"Maybe he should keep some smocks handy" for women who might set male senators atwitter, Pettey suggested.

Holmes' guidelines do not specify skirt lengths or how much cleavage could safely be revealed.

Holmes told Courthouse News the Capitol Journal article was misleading.

He said the reporter incorrectly called the guideline a "code of conduct," though it was merely a suggestion.

And because the suggestions are not a "dress code," Holmes said, he saw no need to offer wardrobe suggestions for men.

"In a professional environment, men are pretty much stuck with a boring suit and tie, so I didn't bother addressing them," Holmes said.

Holmes posted what he called "the real story" on his Facebook page - a separate post from his salvo against the reporter.

Holmes wrote that he's not a "shrewd lawyer type who can formulate thoughts rapidly," especially with an "onslaught of reporters calling and knocking on my front door."

The admonition for women isn't even part of the committee rules, he said.

"Every committee has enforceable rules. This issue stems from a document titled 'Guidelines for Conferees' that is meant to give information on being an effective presenter.

"Second, this guideline doesn't 'block' any witnesses as stated in the [Capitol Journal] headline. ... It is intended to help those who testify to be effective in their presentation. This guideline has been in place for several years with no controversy. No one has ever been blocked or ever will be (except for something outlandish)."

Holmes added: "If this story was a batter in baseball, it would be out. I think the Topeka Capitol Journal owes its readers a retraction."

Holmes explained the impetus for his lady-specific pointers on professional attire: "Several years ago, a paid, full-time lobbyist appeared before a committee with a neckline that extended downward almost to her naval [sic]! This was totally inappropriate for the context. I added this rule out of respect for the other women in the room, and out of respect for the wives of the men in the room, including my own wife."

Holmes' Facebook posts received more than 300 comments, nearly all of them negative.

"You're ridiculous, dictating what women wear in the Capitol or anywhere. How about being a grown up and solving the economic disasters Brownback has created in this state, and get your nose out of women's business?" one woman wrote.

From another: "Maybe you can pass a rule that women must wear burkas. Or maybe on very warm days, you can cut women some slack and let them just wear hijabs. Because, you know, it's a woman's fault for 'distracting' men."

Holmes fared no better with men: "The state is going bankrupt and Sen. Holmes is imposing dress codes on witnesses who want to testify before 'his' committee. ... Is this sixth grade at the Catholic school? Senator Holmes needs to go to timeout for being biased and discriminatory," one man wrote.

Holmes told Courthouse news he doesn't know whether he'll change the guidelines to make them less gender-specific.

"I have not made any decisions yet about revisions. Because it is not a rule, it may be a moot point," he said.

Meanwhile on Facebook, more than one "lady" asked Holmes for fashion advice: "Dear Senator," one woman wrote. "I am wearing jeans and a conservatively cut black shirt today with a gray scarf. I was looking for your professional opinion ... Black boots or gray boots?"

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