GOP state senator convenes private meeting to discuss female attire in Minnesota Senate

Led by state Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, the group of women met by Zoom last week

By: - August 26, 2021 6:00 am

Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake. Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer.

A bipartisan group of female state senators met last week on Zoom to discuss the attire of women in the Minnesota Senate, a DFL lawmaker confirmed, raising the prospect of a dress code a decade after a previous effort was scuttled. 

Led by Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, the group includes Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, Sen. Julia Coleman, R-Chanhassen, Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, Sen. Lindsey Port, DFL-Burnsville, and Sen. Melissa Wiklund, DFL-Bloomington. 

It’s unclear why lawmakers convened to discuss a potential dress code — it’s unknown if there have been recent sartorial faux pas — or whether the group will move to recommend what women should or shouldn’t wear. Requests seeking comment from Kiffmeyer were not returned. 

Rest, who was first elected to the House in 1984, said in an interview that she would not share what the group discussed during the Aug. 16 meeting. She defended the meeting, however, saying the conversation was private, and that she wasn’t going to turn down an invitation to have the discussion. 

The National Conference on State Legislatures shows a range of lawmaker dress codes across the country’s statehouses, with regional variations. Jeans of any color are typically deemed unacceptable attire. Men typically have to wear a coat and tie. 

In Wyoming, lawmakers can wear bolo ties “but the bolo must be worn tight with the top button of a collared shirt buttoned.” Dress boots are allowed, but must be polished. In the Wisconsin Assembly, overcoats and hats are banned on the floor.  

In the Minnesota Senate, male lawmakers are by custom required to wear a jacket and tie during floor proceedings, but it is not actually a formal rule, Rest pointed out.

A potential dress code has come up before at the Minnesota Legislature. In 2011, an effort to codify a dress code died because of a lack of consensus, Rest said. 

“For men, appropriate attire is a suit or sport coat, dress slacks, a dress shirt, and a tie,” the 2011 language said. For women, “appropriate attire includes a dress or skirt, dress slacks, and a blouse or sweater.”

In the Minnesota Senate, what is considered appropriate dress has a fraught history. 

The late state Sen. Nancy Brataas, an Independent Republican from Rochester, wore all sorts of neck ties, including scarves and bow ties, so that her male colleagues did not try to block her from speaking during floor debates. 

“Some of the male senators at first didn’t know if they would let her speak, because she didn’t wear a tie. So she always wore a scarf,” state Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, recalled in a 2014 obituary.

The Senate engaged in a heated debate earlier this year over another issue of decorum and attire when they rejected a mask mandate

Sen. Ann Johnson Stewart, DFL-Wayzata, made light of the paradox in which senators do not have to don masks — despite their effectiveness against COVID-19 — even though they abide by a de facto dress code. She threatened to wear a bathing suit or bathrobe to highlight the contradiction.

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Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez was a senior political reporter for the Reformer.