Judges examine lawyer cleavage

A panel discussion sparks a gender war over sexy courtroom attire.

Published May 22, 2009 9:30PM (EDT)

This week, a panel of judges and lawyers got together to debate a major injustice in today's legal system: lady lawyers and their sexy sartorial choices. It seems some male lawyers think their female counterparts have an unfair, fail-safe argument: "Exhibit A: My breasts. Exhibit B: Check out these gams. Aaand, I rest my case." It's a wonder male counsels ever win!

During the 7th Circuit Bar Association meeting on Tuesday, a panel discussion was kicked off very reasonably: A judge raised the issue of professional dress and pointed to the example of a female lawyer who showed up in court wearing a velour tracksuit. (She won the case, by the way.) Then the panel's conversation shifted "from schlubby to sexy" attire, as the New York Times puts it. Judge Michael P. McCuskey said he's seen women in court wearing "skirts so short that there’s no way they can sit down, and blouses so short there’s no way the judges wouldn’t look." Judge Benjamin Goldgar concurred by sharing his wish that he could tell certain female lawyers: "I'd really like to pay attention to your argument" (but your breasts are getting in the way).

Things remained civil during the meeting, but all hell broke loose online. On the Web site for the American Bar Association Journal, a woman sassed: "I’m sorry, Sugar, I’d love to listen to what you’re saying, but I have a penis. As such, I am only able to use one sense at a time." She added: "What garbage! Poor men can’t control themselves, so women have to respond." A male reader shot back, "Yes, please ladies, by all means use your sexuality to get what you want (after all, that’s the only excuse you have for dressing in the manner described in this article)." And in a final escalation, Susan J. Koniak, a law professor at Boston University, told the Times that if revealing skin in the courtroom is such a problem, "we should just have a bag when we walk in, a burqa."

I'm afraid this case has left me a hung jury of one, because I sympathize with both sides. Even as a straight woman, I find more than an inch of cleavage to be pretty distracting in any setting that isn't a bar or nightclub. In a work setting, where we are often charged with tamping down our secret selves, it's beguiling to be confronted with a private and undeniably sexy body part that is framed for display. But, thing is, that applies to men, too, whether it's a boldly unbuttoned collar or a bicep-revealing short-sleeved shirt (and to any man who wants to claim that women aren't so easily distracted: You're wrong). Sexual tension is inevitable in the workplace, whether women wear burqas or bikinis, or men don stuffy suits or boxer briefs. What's unfortunate is when that tension is spun into resentment and women's bodies are deemed a threat, a cruel weapon necessarily used to control men.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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