“Sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits” is how Hillary Clinton put it. And with those simple words, the peculiar misery haunting a certain slice of my entire professional life flashed before my eyes.
First let me set the scene: I got to Denver late after getting up at four in the morning to catch the plane here. My hotel is, as it turns out, not actually in Denver, but in the next suburb over. This means I have to take a shuttle bus and light rail or else a $70 cab ride, while the driver tries to figure out which roads into town haven’t been blocked off. Once at the convention center, you still have to stand in line for an hour or so to get through perimeter security, and then you walk for miles and miles on the indoor-outdoor concrete surfaces with which all of Denver is seemingly paved.
What I mean is, that if you’ve worn the wrong shoes you don’t just pop back to your room to change. And if you’ve worn long pants and a snappy little power jacket with a silk lining that is slicked to your skin in the blistering heat, you don’t dare take it off, because you’re middle-aged and a little worried about bra straps.
So this is the kind of stuff rattling through my brain when Hillary Clinton spoke those fateful words. I looked at her well-constructed peach pantsuit and the pantsuits of the thousands of her well-heeled contributors on the floor, and thought: the night before, Michele Obama had worn a simple, single-layer sheath dress, appropriate for this weather, and a pair of low-heeled shoes. Elegant, confident and literally cooler. This thought, this contrast, made me stop my busy blogging about unity and the future and women as astronauts. I unbuttoned my jacket, kicked off my shoes underneath the press table. Whew, I said to myself. Hillary Clinton and I are trapped in the clothes of our generation.
I suppose there’s nothing like an election to turn the mind to fashion statements. And now that the party is at least nominally united, allow me this little digression upon the little-observed semiotics of what hell it has been for a woman of a certain age to dress for success. To some extent it’s not exclusively woman’s issue–the citizenry is often disposed to deciphering candidates’ positions on serious issues, ranging from the war to the economy, from the esoterica of what they wear. Cowboy-boot politics. Italian-twill twee. Plaid-shirt populism. Lapel-pin patriotism.
This season, however, we have been much consumed with the matter of shoulder-pad feminism, as it was so ungraciously dubbed by pundits. The very term made me cringe, harkening back as it does to my first days out of law school some thirty-odd years ago, when as a result of brand-new affirmative action policies, women entered professional life in something like numbers that mattered.
Its hard to remember how flummoxed everyone was at the prospect of women in boardrooms, women in courtrooms, women in…. power. Garden hats, tea dresses and little white gloves simply weren’t up to the task. And what a task it was. Pervasive skepticism at our presence in male geographies had to be countered with the trappings of authority, the semaphores of serious intent, the packaging of no-nonsense. Proving that we were as good as the guys thus ushered in an ugly and exaggerated anti-romanticism: no lace, no flounces, no ruffles, no pleats. No hankies, as though in expectation of copious tears. No loud colors that made you sparkle or shine. No lockets, no heart-shaped objects dangling from delicate silver threads. No heaving bosoms, no bursting bras–indeed, no obvious breasts. Just a uniformly square-cut suit in industrial tones, perhaps a robust rope of heavy gold for a wristwatch. We looked as though Charlotte Gilman’s housewife had stepped out of her yellow-wallpapered prison of sentimental virtue and bellied up to the bar.