Friday, March 28, 2014

Should Women Adhere to Sexist Conventions Anyway, for the Sake of Their Clients?

This is the question that was posed to me by a law professor acquaintance, following Eugene Volokh's piece in the Washington Post.

After I'd typed out a lengthy response on Facebook, I realized it was essentially a follow up blog post. Here it is:

 I think Mr. Volokh is broadly on the right track, but is falling into the same problematic rhetoric, founded on stereotypically sexist tropes, that plagues Judge Kopf's piece: that women are prone to trash talking each other or becoming jealous based on one another's level of beauty or style of dress, that the beholder's "biological" reaction to the woman's appearance is the woman's responsibility or fault, even while he acknowledges that what constitutes "too revealing" varies based on factors that have nothing to do with the woman herself, and that women deliberately use their sexuality to attempt to gain advantage. His comment about sexualized environments is confused, as he first says that he has heard that in such an environment men will tend to objectify women regardless of how they are dressed, and then he turns around and says that women should try to minimize this by policing their attire.

The analogy he tries to draw between women's attire and religious attire is at best a poor one, and at worst a straw man. Just being a woman, especially a woman of a visible minority, puts one at a similar disadvantage to that experienced by people wearing obvious markers of their religious or cultural identity. It's fairly common to hear would-be clients say they'd prefer a male lawyer as soon as they hear that a lawyer is a woman, and that has nothing to do with the woman's appearance.

Of course, both Judge Kopf and Mr. Volokh are expressing their opinions with respect to an imagined woman who is wearing "revealing" clothing - that is, clothing that they imagine to be revealing. The judge has admitted that he invented the woman lawyer he talked about, and that he was taking literary license in setting the scene he described. Volokh is responding to that imagined scenario, in equally vague and hypothetical terms.This makes their commentary even less useful, and more unnecessarily blaming of women, because we have no actual benchmark from which we can hope to work out what is "too revealing" or "too sexy." In fact, even when women play into the correct societal norms, we are judged and deemed too sexy/casual/frumpy/etc.

At the risk of raising my own point that might seem like a red herring or straw man, there are loads of men in the professions who wear well-fitted suits, are well groomed and charming, and who generally look like movie stars. They are definitely distracting! It would be easier to focus if they didn't wear amazing smelling colognes, or quite such perfectly tailored trousers and jackets, or lay on the charm so thick with court clerks and registry staff. But there's no collective pearl clutching about their lady killer ways, because we don't scrutinize men for any signs of sexiness, and then expound on that sexiness and its meaning and effect, the way we do with women.

In the end, I think that the degree to which women lawyers try to adhere to certain sartorial norms, whether or not they play into sexist conventions, is not closely related to the possibility that we will be accused of dressing inappropriately or too sexily.

No comments: