There’s an unofficial uniform requisite for women who demand to partake in power politics. Plain suits that mimic the traditional man’s suit drape over the female form. Sweet and simple pearls decorate the ear lobes. Pastel blouses, buttoned at the throat lie neatly under the loose and unflattering suit coat, and last but not least, classic, black or brown shoes, with short heels delicately cradle each foot. The uniform is not distinctly feminine. It carefully walks a thin line between masculinity and motherliness. It discreetly speaks for the woman who wears the suit, saying, “I will play because you let me, gentlemen, and I promise to remain sweet, play nice and will remain unthreatening.” Last week Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice left her uniform in a heap, next to her grandmother’s heirloom vanity.
Condi accompanied the President to speak to troops at the Wiesbaden Army Airfield. As she stepped out onto the stage to offer an introductory speech, she revealed something rarely seen in politics. Without confusing signals, she was the embodiment of femininity and power. Her lips were painted dark red, which had a dramatic affect with her long, pitch black coat. Gold buttons fastened the coat snugly around her trim waist while the bottom half of her coat carelessly blew open in the wind. The hem of her black skirt hit right above her knee. But the most distinguishing accessories were her boots. Condi wore narrow-toed black leather boots, with skinny three-inch heels. Every woman knows what heels like that do to her when she wears them. They make her walk with her shoulders back and with a patterned, involuntary swing in her hips. They give her added height, often making her taller than many men. They force her to watch carefully for terrain that can safely be crossed. (Grates and gravel are lethal to a woman in heels like that.) Oh, and of course, there’s the dull pain in the soles of her feet that never stops throbbing. When a woman wears heels like the ones Condi wore, she is keenly aware of herself and of the eyes watching her, even though by all outward appearances, she appears oblivious. Like the traditional woman’s suit/uniform, Condi’s apparel spoke for her but she sent a very different message. It said, “I am a woman, not a man. I am beautiful and I know you know it, and by the way… I’m the United States Secretary of State and I have important and serious things to say.”
When the Washington Post splashed images of Condi and her boots on the cover of their paper, it was the first thing that caught my eye as I walked by the newspaper rack on the way to work. I was stunned, unsure of my thoughts, and very pleased. I hurried on to work and grabbed the office copy of the Post on our front table and took it around to my co-workers (two of them men, two women). Each one had something to say about her boots, but nothing negative. More people than those in my office had something to say about Condi. I turned on FoxNews and heard a “talking head” say that “She looked European, and it would work for women in Europe, but it won’t work here. Fashion is a European thing, but it’s different for women in the States. It just won’t be accepted here.” (I paraphrased him, but the point is the same). I don’t think he could be more wrong, however, I think many conservative thinkers will draw the same conclusion.
It’s a “European thing” for women to participate in “high fashion” like it’s a “New York and Los Angeles” thing for women to participate in “high fashion” (even though New York and Los Angeles generally catch trends from Europe approximately two years later). However, all women want to be beautiful and fashionable. Condi wasn’t starting a trend at all, at least not a fashion trend. Rather she was wearing what is already fashionable and beautiful for women, without abandoning professionalism. What she did was merge power and feminine beauty by wearing them on the political stage, where Condi appeared as “Dr. Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of the United States of America’s Department of State” rather than forcing power and feminine beauty to exist separately. The talking head was wrong when he said it won’t be accepted here. The feedback that I’ve received from my male co-workers, who have made their careers on Capitol Hill with the current majority party, have unanimously voiced that, “She looked amazing—beautiful, powerful and serious.” I’m sure they were also thinking “And I’m glad she’s on our side and not the side of the bad guys.” I agree, gentleman. Hey, Condi, did they have those boots in an eight?
Rebeccah Ramey is a recent graduate of Ashland University and the Ashbrook Scholar Program. She currently works in Washington, D.C.