Here’s a quiz. Question number one: In what country can a twenty-year employee with an excellent record be fired for not wearing lipstick? Question number two: What country has a state where it may soon be illegal to have your underwear stick out above your pants? Did you guess a fundamentalist Islamic country somewhere far away? Well you’re wrong. The winning answer is our very own United States of America.
True Story Number 1: On February 8, 2005, 60 of the 94 members of the Virginia House of Delegates voted for a bill which would impose a $50 fine on anyone whose boxers, briefs or thongs peek above their pants or skirts. According to the bill’s sponsor Algie Howell, “To vote for this bill would be a vote for character, to uplift your community and to do something good not only for the state of Virginia, but for this entire country.”
True Story Number 2: For twenty years, beginning in the early 1980’s, Darlene Jespersen was a bartender at the sports bar in Harrah’s Casino in Reno Nevada. According to customer comments and supervisor review, Jespersen was an excellent employee with a positive attitude. In July 2000, however, Harrah’s fired her. And in the waning days of 2004, two male judges in the U.S. District Court for the 9th Circuit – arguably the most liberal federal appeals court in the country – ruled that the firing was legal.
What was Darlene Jespersen’s undoing? Did she steal from her long-time boss? Fall down drunk in front of the customers? Come in late once too often? No. Darlene Jespersen was fired for one reason only: she refused to wear make-up. In 2000, Harrah’s imposed a new company policy that required, for women only, “that make up (foundation/concealer and/or face powder, as well as blush and mascara) must be worn and applied neatly in complimentary colors” and that “lip color must be worn at all times.” (Repeat: this is a true story)
Darlene Jespersen had done her job well without makeup for twenty years, did not feel comfortable wearing it. During her court case, she testified that wearing makeup “forced her to be feminine” and to become “dolled up” like a sexual object.” She also felt that make up “interfered with her ability to win the respect of customers that would be necessary or her to deal with them when they were unruly”.
Doesn’t that spell sex discrimination under the country’s long-standing civil rights laws? Not according to the male judges who upheld Harrah’s decision. The type of “grooming standard” imposed by Harrah, the judges ruled, was a-ok. (Even though, — and this probably goes without saying – Harrah’s male bartenders were not only not required to wear make-up, but were specifically prohibited from doing so.)
I wish I could tell you that the men behind these actions were fire-breathing Republicans, swept into positions of control by today’s conservative climate. I can’t. Sixty-seven year old Virginia Delegate Algie Howell, according to his official biography, is a life member of the NAACP, a life member of the national teachers’ union the National Education Association, and former President of the Norfolk, Virginia Chapter of the SCLC.
And the judges who think a woman can be fired for not wearing lipstick? The man who threw out the case in the lower court was an 80-year old Carter appointee. The two Ninth Circuit judges were a 72-year-old Carter appointee and a 55-year-old Clinton appointee. (The lone 9th Circuit dissenter, Judge Sydney Thomas, was also a Clinton appointee.)
It is a sign of the woeful times in which we find ourselves that Harrah’s policy, and the ninth circuit’s sanctioning of it, provoked little outrage in the press. It also reveals how quickly our civil rights can slip away from us if we’re not constantly vigilant. As the current administration blasts messages about promoting liberty and equality abroad, if we’re not careful, those same values we claim to be fighting for overseas can disappear here at home.
So now it’s time for quiz number 2: Who wants to raise their hand and say women and men have the right to wear or not wear whatever they damn well please? Bonus points for those who scream, not whisper, “me.”