American voters sent a record number of women to Congress in this year’s midterm elections. While that’s a historic win for gender equality in politics, the crop of new legislators is not immune to the everyday challenges that women face in the workplace. Those hurdles, as this week’s uproar over New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez demonstrated, include getting judged based on what you wear.
On Nov. 15, Washington Examiner writer Eddie Scarry tweeted a photo of Ocasio-Cortez walking down a hallway in a black suit and carrying her coat, along with the caption: “I’ll tell you something: that jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.”
This tweet referenced a common conservative critique of Ocasio-Cortez: The idea that she is not an “authentic” leftist, and that her comments about her personal financial struggles are exaggerated. Conservative activists have pointed to the quality of her clothing or the neighborhood she grew up in as proof that, while she tries to cast herself as an ally of the working class, she has a much grander personal life. After a magazine published an interview with Ocasio-Cortez in September in which she posed for a photoshoot wearing an outfit estimated at around $3,500, right-wing activists implied she was a fraud:
The incident with Eddie Scarry is the latest example of the pushback inspired by Ocasio-Cortez’s meteoric rise in politics. A political unknown just a year ago, the 29-year-old Latina from the Bronx has made history as the youngest woman elected to Congress, along with fellow 29-year-old Iowa Democrat Abby Finkenauer. She has shaken up New York City politics and is now planning to take her personal brand of fiery, media-savvy democratic socialism to Congress—a prospect that makes many people deeply uncomfortable.
Henry Navarro Delgado, an assistant professor of fashion at Ryerson University in Canada, says that’s precisely the reason why so many people are scrutinizing Ocasio-Cortez’s wardrobe. “There are several elements at play here,” he told Quartz. “She’s a woman of color. She’s a woman, of course. She is in a position that is normally dominated by white, male members of society. And her political views are also controversial to the majority of people in Congress.” Critics feel threatened by what she represents, and so they choose to focus on her clothes to show that she’s not who she says she is—and by extension, that she doesn’t belong.
Ocasio-Cortez seems to understand that:
For women like Ocasio-Cortez, it seems, fashion is always political. And there’s nothing that she could wear that would protect her from criticism. As Delgado says, ”It’s just the way that men in power tend to deal with feeling threatened by women who suddenly become part of the conversation of politics.”