The Post and Courier recently reported on viral Instagram and Facebook posts by state Rep. Nancy Mace that were critical of Democratic women in Congress who dressed in white for the recent State of the Union address as a show of solidarity and united purpose.
Rep. Mace saw that as something that “set women back.” She said, “As women we make a fundamental mistake when we make our identity as women the WHOLE story. The point of breaking glass ceilings is so that, after they’re broken, it doesn’t matter anymore.” She also said, “We don’t need to dress alike. We don’t need to think alike. We don’t need to act alike. We simply need to be present and be working for ALL of the people who elected us.”
She also said, “The voices of women like me are not heard. I think that’s why it struck such a chord. I mean, women that feel the same way that I do, that have that same sort of streak: We aren’t going to go along to get along. We’re not going to dress like others. No one is going to tell us what to do. No one is going to tell me what to do. I am my own woman.”
I’ve quoted Rep. Mace more extensively than I usually do in a responsive opinion column because I understand and respect her opinion. I also celebrate the courage and persistence that she displayed when she shattered a glass ceiling and became the first woman to graduate from The Citadel.
I also, however, respectfully offer Rep. Mace a little food for thought. She not only proved her worth and ability at The Citadel — she also wore a cadet uniform that symbolized success in and victory over a shared crucible of discipline, loyalty and commitment.
One of my deceased friends who was an early black Citadel graduate said something profound about his cadet experience. He said, “The first black cadets faced opposition, resentment and outright racism, but the one thing that we had in common with all cadets was the uniform.” It was a symbol of shared — if somewhat grudging and elusive — unity of purpose and commitment.
The Democratic women in Congress wore white for the State of the Union address to celebrate those women who fought for the right to vote in the early 20th century. Those suffragists weren’t united in all things — some black suffragists were demeaned and disregarded — but they found common ground in their belief that women deserved the same right to cast their votes as did the men of their day.
I respect and affirm Rep. Mace’s belief that she’s her “own woman.” That aligns with the conservative American spirit of rugged individualism. I’d also suggest — as a man daring to “stick his nose in” where it might not belong — that she consider the fact that some women, especially women of color and those who stand with them when it comes to public policy, might share a sense of common cause instead of a sense of rugged individualism.
Women of color are still sometimes the “last hired and the first fired.” Women of color often identify with immigrant women — whose children were recently ripped from their arms at America’s southern border — simply because they dared to seek a better life in America. Women of color — like Sandra Bland, who died in Texas police custody because she challenged a police stop — might not share Rep. Mace’s life experience.
The women who wore white for the State of the Union address are not a “gender monolith” any more so than black folk, who are often misidentified as a blind and servile political “racial monolith.” Those women, however, did — and do — have the same right to unite in their uniform dress as people of common purpose and agreement as do Citadel cadets who commit to common purpose and unity by the cadet uniforms that they wear.
Those Democratic women who chose to wear white as a symbol of shared intent deserve not condemnation, but respect. We’d do well to affirm them and respect their wardrobe choice, in the spirit of AME Church Bishop Frederick Calhoun James, who said that we should celebrate, “The unity of our diversity and the diversity of our unity.”
The Rev. Joseph A. Darby is senior pastor at Nichols Chapel AME Church and first vice president of the Charleston Branch NAACP.