Wednesday, March 26, 2014

She's too sexy for this court, too sexy for this court

I spend a fair amount of time in court.  As a man, I have limited choices for how to dress for court:  dark suit, white or light blue shirt, tie.  All of the other male attorneys wear the same thing, with few exceptions.*

* - A few years ago, in a North Carolina county courthouse I spent a bit of time in, all of the courthouse lawyers went out one year and bought seersucker suits, which you would occasionally see in the summer months, but they seemed to have a rotation, as you'd never see two wearing their seersucker on the same day.  One day, somebody screwed up and wore his on the wrong day, and there was kind of an awkward, embarrassed recognition that they both looked extremely silly.

Women have more choices.  The pantsuit is a popular one, as is the skirt-suit, and those tend to be perfectly appropriate choices for court--modest and dress-equivalent to what men wear.  After all, the goal is to stand out on your skills and merit, not to distract others with outlandish dress.  But the dress rules for women are considerably less defined than they are for men.  I've seen women lawyers in cocktail dresses and church dresses and in button-up shirts with slacks. 

A Nebraska federal judge who has a personal blog has come under some fire for his comments about the way women dress for court--comments that included three "rules" [LINK NOTE:  Some colorful language] for young women lawyers:

1. You can’t win. Men are both pigs and prudes. Get over it.
2. It is not about you. That goes double when you are appearing in front of a jury.
3. Think about the female law clerks. If they are likely to label you, like Jane Curtin, an ignorant slut behind your back, tone it down.
The judge, who admits to being a lifelong "dirty old man," discussed a young female trial attorney who appears in his court.  He described her as follows:

She is brilliant, she writes well, she speaks eloquently, she is zealous but not overly so, she is always prepared, she treats others, including her opponents, with civility and respect, she wears very short skirts and shows lots of her ample chest. I especially appreciate the last two attributes.
I will admit to being a little bit conflicted by this attitude.  On the one hand, I like women.  I like looking at women.  I like looking at women who aren't afraid to be sexy.  I like to work with women who have the self-confidence to be sexy at work, as long as they can pull their weight.  And I think most men are like me in that regard.

On the other hand, I like women.  I like women who are brilliant, who write well, who speak eloquently, who are prepared and civil and respectful.  And I like them no matter what they look like.

I can't speak for most men, but as for me, I'm not looking to use my workplace as a hunting ground for female companions.  I'm happily married.  I have a number of women friends whose company I enjoy on a strictly platonic basis; I would never not work with someone, or be friends with someone, because of how she looked--good or bad.  As far as that goes, the possibility of some sort of "relationship" with them just never crosses my mind, at least not as anything other than a flirtatious joke.**  It makes me feel good to treat women as my equal--which I do because they are my equal--and to respect them for what they can do.  Sadly, there are a lot of women who rarely encounter a man who genuinely wants them to succeed, who isn't threatened by them in some way, who sees them as something other than an object or a distraction.

** - I think there is a difference between harmless flirting and sexual harassment.  I can't really define it, but, like Potter Stewart and obscenity (see Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964)), I know it when I see it.  The best I can do is to say that one treats the listener as an equal, while the other seeks to exploit power in a relationship.  I would be truly horrified if a woman felt that I had harassed her.

I have one simple rule for this kind of thing:  If you have to ask whether it's racist or sexist, it probably is.  But in this case, my radar is malfunctioning.  I can't decide if this judge is an ordinary pig who objectifies women instead of respecting them, or if he's just expressing his appreciation of the benefits of having intelligent, even brilliant, women in the office.  I'm not talking about giving preferential treatment to pretty women.  But if we are going to encounter women in the workplace, and we definitely are and should, is it wrong to enjoy it?  Or do we need to pretend that we don't see them as women?  Isn't that more anti-woman?

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