Ohio Congresswoman Catches Heat for Modesty Comments

Rep. Marcy Kaptur shocked fellow lawmakers when she said the way a woman dresses could be an invitation to sexual harassment.

(photo: Unsplash)

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, got some pushback recently for decrying immodest dress by women in Congress, but her comments resonated with those who agree that today’s female attire standards could use a makeover.

Kaptur reportedly “shocked fellow lawmakers” during a closed-door Democratic caucus meeting by suggesting that clothing worn by some members and staffers was “an invitation” to sexual harassment. Appalled at the attire she has seen, Kaptur said she thought women in Congress should have to adhere to a stricter dress code.

When critics accused her of blaming the victims of sexual harassment, Kaptur responded with a statement saying, “Under no circumstances is it the victim’s fault if they are harassed in any way.” She said her comments were made in the context of the METOO Congress Act, of which she is a co-sponsor, and “how we can elevate the decorum and the dress code to protect women from what is a pervasive problem here and in society at large.” The METOO Act would change the way harassment claims from congressional employees are handled.

A lifelong Catholic and graduate of a Catholic girls’ academy, Kaptur, 71, declined to talk with the Register about her comments. But in a meeting with the editorial board of The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, she stood her ground. “You don’t invite encounter,” she said. “And dress can be part of that.” The paper agreed with her in an editorial, saying: “She’s right. And there’s nothing wrong, and everything correct, about expecting professional people to dress professionally.”

Still, as Kaptur has learned, it’s difficult to criticize immodesty in women’s attire today without offending those who think the mere suggestion that women change the way they dress implies they are at fault if they are sexually harassed or attacked.

Catholic radio and TV host Teresa Tomeo told the Register that although a woman’s attire does not excuse harassment, she wonders why a culture that claims to oppose women being treated as objects adds to the problem by creating media images that seem to encourage it.

For instance, in watching the recent Golden Globe Awards show on television, she thought it was good that women were unified in addressing the harassment issue. But she noted that the advertisements featured a trailer for Fifty Shades Freed, a sequel to the soft-core pornographic film Fifty Shades of Grey, and that one of the presenters was actress Dakota Johnson, co-star of the Fifty Shades films.

“This, to me, spoke volumes that there is still such a disconnect with Hollywood, in terms of the need to change what they represent and sell in their films,” Tomeo said. “Nothing is going to change if we continue to see people and sex as objects.”

Furthermore, when it comes to attire, Tomeo said, “If we want to be treated as dignified people, why do we feel we have to expose ourselves when we dress?”  

Jennifer Baugh, the founder and national executive director of Young Catholic Professionals, told the Register immodest dress can affect both women and men negatively.

“It can cause people to think this type of attire is acceptable and lead to impure thoughts. All of us are bombarded daily with images and messages that could lead us to sin, whether it’s through the media or billboards.”

In the workplace, Baugh believes it is important for women to dress modestly because they are more likely to be taken seriously if their professional accomplishments speak more loudly than their clothing.

That said, she has observed that professional women have become much more comfortable taking fashion risks they might not have in the past.

“They wear bolder colors/patterns and tighter clothing. Many women end up looking like they are ready for a night out on the town rather than the office.”

At the same time, Baugh said she has been encouraged by a new generation of young Catholic women in the workplace who are striving to bring back sophistication and grace through their attire.

Baugh thinks women in professional settings should wear skirts at knee-level and tops that do not show any cleavage, and, generally, clothing that is not too tight. Depending on the temperature, she said, a sleeveless dress or shirt might be acceptable for an outdoor professional setting, but always, temperance and prudence should be applied.

Similarly, Tomeo favors skirts below the knee for herself, but also likes wide-legged pants or culottes for comfort. For tops, she chooses only boatneck styles or those with a slight scoop neck, and never anything low or revealing. And if she wears a sleeveless top, she said, she often will pair it with a scarf over the shoulders.

For much of Tomeo’s previous career in secular television news, she had to adhere to a dress code that prohibited her from wearing, for example, a sleeveless dress. Shortly before she left the business in 2000, however, she remembers a news director telling female reporters to be sure to open their jackets so that their collarbones would be exposed. A consultant had told him viewers would find this sexy. Since then, Tomeo said, “Any sense of professionalism has gone out the window, and, overall, many women are dressing very provocatively.”

Learning to dress beautifully, but modestly, was instilled in Tomeo from a young age, she said, by her mother and a great aunt, who was a seamstress in New York’s garment district.

Such modeling was once the rule for young women, but no longer is a given for those growing up in a sexualized culture.

Pat Link Webber of Parrish, Florida, who graduated from St. Ursula Academy in Toledo, Ohio, a year before Kaptur, said she was influenced in her style of dress by both her mother and the nuns at the all-girls’ school. She was taught, she said, to dress respectfully and appropriately for the occasion. Her mother also told her: “If you do this or if you wear that, this is what might happen.”

Jason Evert, author of the new book Theology of the Body in One Hour, told the Register that when he sees a woman who is dressed immodestly, “It requires an act of the will to remind myself to quickly affirm her value as a person, rather than valuing only the appearance of her body.”

He said as a married man, he tries to thank God for an attractive woman’s beauty and then offer a prayer for her vocation. “This way, I am responding to her beauty with love, rather than acting like her body is evil.”

Unfortunately, he said, the tens of millions of men who routinely consume pornography have no idea how to properly look at a woman. They can’t see past her physical appearance.

“When a woman dresses in a way that accentuates her sexuality alone, rather than her full dignity as a woman, these men view her as an object to be used rather than as a person to be loved.”

Evert said he thinks many women react negatively to the idea of modesty because, historically, the problem of lust has been blamed on the body of the woman.

“She’s the seductress, the occasion of sin. But when we blame the body for lust, the real issue — our hearts — is overlooked.” For example, he added, the cause of theft is not the stolen object, but greed in the heart of the thief.  Still, he continued, “Modesty plays an essential role in transforming the hearts of those who are inclined toward lust. This is because modesty is an invitation to contemplation. It is a reminder that a woman’s body is not public property, nor is it the best thing a woman has to offer the world.”

He said he considers modesty an unspoken invitation for respect.

“If a woman wants to dress in a revealing way, I think she ought to know that she’ll reveal more of herself by dressing modestly. She’s not hiding herself from men; she is revealing her dignity to them. ... By their nature, women are mysterious. My suggestion to women is that they retain that mystery by considering their body to be a secret, spoken only to the one who deserves to know it.”

Register correspondent Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.