Elaine Loughlin: Sexist obsession with clothing limits careers

A weekend newspaper effectively lined up several members of Fianna Fáil who attended the party think-in and tore apart their outfits one by one
Elaine Loughlin: Sexist obsession with clothing limits careers

Elaine Loughlin On the Plinth

THERE’s a black suit jacket with gold buttons and a retro-looking tie that permanently hangs on a coat stand in the corridor directly behind the Leinster House press gallery.

It may not be the most flattering of fits, but it has saved a number of male political journalists over the years who turned up to the Dáil without the stipulated attire.

Many have had to don the suit of shame when they were pulled up by an usher for not wearing a formal jacket and tie in the chamber as the rules dictate.

A strict dress code applies to journalists who want a front-row seat of political proceedings in the Dáil.

However, TDs are simply asked to dress in a manner that “reflects the dignity of the House”, meaning our elected members have shown up in everything from frayed jeans and work boots to three-piece suits accessorised with cufflinks and a pocket watch.

And why shouldn’t they?

For many of us, the pandemic came as a relief as the daily pressure of being judged based on our appearance dissipated behind a Zoom screen.

And so, in 2021, it is beyond galling that the Taoiseach of the country should not have to remind people that the clothes on a person’s back do not matter. Full stop.

Micheál Martin was responding to what he described as a “personal, nasty, and unkind” article published in a weekend newspaper, which effectively lined up several members of Fianna Fáil who attended the party think-in and tore apart their outfits one by one.

Pictured at the Fianna Fáil think-in at the Slieve Russell Hotel were TD Mary Butler and senators Erin McGreehan and Catherine Ardagh. Picture: Conor McCabe
Pictured at the Fianna Fáil think-in at the Slieve Russell Hotel were TD Mary Butler and senators Erin McGreehan and Catherine Ardagh. Picture: Conor McCabe

Senator Erin McGreehan, one of those singled out, understandably admitted to being upset by the comments.

“Words matter if you want to be taken seriously. There was no added value, only a put-down of eight people who were there to work,” she said of those who were the subject of the attack.

“We weren’t there for a fashion column.”

Publicly bashing someone based on their appearance, which is the cheapest shot you could possibly fire, remains a daily feature of working life for our politicians, especially our female TDs and senators.

Drafting and scrutinising legislation, speaking out on pressing issues, and representing constituents is time-consuming enough without having to agonise over whether your skirt is too tight, too short, too colourful, or just not to the taste of whoever wants to drag you down on a given day.

The argument that it is difficult enough for women to enter politics without having to be judged like a prize heifer at an agricultural show has been well articulated numerous times before.

You could easily Google the topic and an article written 20 or 30 years ago would probably sound as relevant today.

This analysis doesn’t even touch on the impact such nasty and shallow comments can have on a person’s confidence and mental health.

The argument goes beyond politics, as women across society — whether high-powered executives in boardrooms or mothers going on the school run — still must factor in the time to ensure they fit whatever mould is expected of them because they know they continue to be judged.

Former tánaiste Joan Burton would carve time out of what was an already exceptionally busy ministerial diary to get her hair professionally washed and dried, as the alternative could have been public ridicule.

Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly spoken out about the “hideous and quite cruel” remarks directed at her over her hair and clothing choices.

German chancellor Angela Merkel lamented that, as a woman, what she wore often generated the greatest reaction.

“It’s no problem at all for a man to wear a dark blue suit for a hundred days in a row, but if I wear the same blazer four times in two weeks, that leads to letter-writing from citizens,” she told Die Zeit in 2019.

In 2011, former TD Mick Wallace, who was not immune to commentary over what he wore, got himself in hot water when he referred to then Fine Gael TD Mary Mitchell O’Connor as “Miss Piggy”.

That same year, attempts to introduce changes that would have required male deputies to wear “a tailored jacket and trousers and a collared shirt” in the Dáil chamber were quietly shelved by the government.

In 2016, TDs again clashed over what was deemed appropriate attire for our elected representatives.

The row kicked off after Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit TDs wore ‘Repeal’ jumpers in the Dáil, which, under standing orders, is not permitted, as members cannot “display emblems of a party political nature”.

The discussion quickly turned from wearing tops with slogans to how politicians were turned out.

Bríd Smith made the point at the time that “the people who elected me wouldn’t be fussy about wearing suits and ties whereas those who represent the business class would have a different standard”.

Clothes have historically been used as a way of putting people in their place or marking them out as different.

Until this fixation on female fashion changes, we will never gain real equality — especially in our national parliament, where less than a quarter of all TDs are women.

The pandemic could have been used as a real opportunity to leave behind the sexist, classist, and preconceived ideas we have about dressing.

In a time when working in our pyjamas has become the accepted norm, successful women are still being publicly trashed for getting up, getting out, and turning up to work. It is time we called it out.

Politicians represent every social class and section of society, why shouldn’t the way they dress reflect this? And why should it even be a talking point?

Politics headlines through the years

1880, September 19: The term 'boycott' was coined when Charles Steward Parnell delivered a famous speech in Ennis, Co Clare. Addressing the crowd, Parnell said: “When a man takes a farm from which another had been evicted, you must shun him on the roadside when you meet him, you must shun him in the streets of the town, you must shun him in the shop, you must shun him in the fairgreen and in the marketplace and even in the place of worship, by leaving him alone, by putting him in a moral Coventry, by isolating him from the rest of his country as if he were the leper of old, you must show your detestation of the crime he has committed.”

Charles Stewart Parnell: Coined the term 'boycott' on September 19, 1880.
Charles Stewart Parnell: Coined the term 'boycott' on September 19, 1880.

1971, September 20: Under the headline ‘Secret airlift of internees’, the Cork Examiner reported on an operation to move a large group from Crumlin Road Jail and the prison ship Maidstone to Long Kesh. Even then, the Catholic community described Long Kesh as “a concentration camp”, and the report states that some of the strongest security precautions ever seen in Northern Ireland had been deployed to transport the prisoners via helicopter.

2001, September 21: In the wake of the Twin Tower attacks, then-taoiseach Bertie Ahern announced that Ireland would put its airports, airspace, refuelling facilities, and Garda intelligence “at the disposal of the US in the battle against terrorism”. After a meeting of leaders in Brussels, Mr Ahern said: “There is a view there will be military action, how and when we do not know.”

2013, September 19:  There were clashes outside Leinster House on the first day back after the summer break when protesters tried to bypass Garda lines via a side street. Irish Examiner political correspondent Shaun Connelly reported that a “sharp upgrade in anti-protest hardware was deployed to deter any attempted surge by protestors” outside the Dáil. Meanwhile, inside the chamber, changes to speaking rights meant that only “coalition refusniks whose largest element is a group of ex-Fine Gael TDs” were listened to. “It was probably not the type of change the demonstrators outside were pushing for,” Mr Connelly wrote.

Did you know...

If a motion of no confidence in a taoiseach or government is passed, or a motion of confidence is defeated, the Constitution dictates that both the taoiseach and the government must resign.

This is not necessarily the case with a motion that refers to a minister.

Generally, opposition parties cannot “reopen a discussion on a question already discussed” in the past six months but, under Dáil standing orders, the ceann comhairle has the discretion to allow a confidence motion in a taoiseach and/or the government or a member of the government within six months.

The Week Ahead

Today: Sub-Committee on Mental Health will hear from department officials and Junior Minister Mary Butler on the provision of mental health services and how they have been impacted by the pandemic.

Tomorrow: The Dáil returns with a bang and a motion of no confidence in Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney. However, the Sinn Féin motion is likely to be superseded by a Government countermotion — watch out as many Fianna Fáil TDs and possibly some Greens squirm as they press the voting buttons to keep the Minister secure.
Tomorrow: The National Broadband Plan, remember that? If you live in many parts of rural Ireland you probably haven't benefited from it yet as the rollout targets have been significantly missed. In fact, the latest figures show that fewer than 900 premises out of more than 79,000 homes and businesses in Cork have been connected under the plan. The Transport and Communications Committee will get an update from officials overseeing the controversial project.

Thursday: The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is worth tuning into this week as it delves into Covid-19 procurement and related expenditure as well as the HSE's Integrated Financial Management and Procurement System.

Thursday: Eamon Ryan, the Green Party leader, has an early start when he takes questions in the Dáil on his environmental brief followed by questions on transport.

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