Carol Moseley Braun holds the distinction of being the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Senate, and in 1993, she also helped bring about another victory for equality: a rare rule change in the Senate that updated the dress code from its outdated, gendered restrictions to better align with the times.
Before becoming a senator, Moseley Braun was used to wearing pantsuits during her tenure in the Illinois legislature, where rules were more relaxed. One morning in early 1993, not long after she was sworn in as a Democratic senator, she chose an Armani pantsuit to wear to work. “I walked onto the floor of the Senate, and the gasps were audible,” she later said. The dress code — which required women to wear dresses or skirts with a jacket — was enforced primarily by peer pressure, as well as the whims of the Senate doorkeepers who allowed people into the chamber.
Female aides initially tried to challenge the dress code in 1972, but their request was reportedly ignored. By 1993, thanks to an increasing number of women senators, the tide began to shift. After Moseley Braun’s unintentionally bold move, Senator Barbara Mikulski did the same. (Although no official Senate record confirms which senator first wore pants on the floor, most available information suggests it was Moseley Braun.) Female staffers, journalists, and other senators soon began advocating for an official allowance to wear pants. Shortly after, Senate Sergeant at Arms Martha Pope issued an amendment to the dress code, allowing “coordinated pantsuits” as part of the acceptable attire for women — a major win in what’s been called the “pantsuit revolution.”