Congress

Member lapel pins out, necklaces in, say women in Congress

Fashion sense, practicality cited as reasons for growing trend

Florida Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell says people are noticing female lawmakers wearing their member pins as necklace pendants because there are more women in the House. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

While big jewelry and bold statement chains made headlines last week during New York Fashion Week, an increasing number of women in the House are starting a fashion trend of their own: wearing their member pins as a necklace pendant.

Traditionally, the House member pin, given out to lawmakers to distinguish them from staffers and visitors, is worn pierced through fabric as its menswear name suggests — on a suit lapel. While members are not required to wear them, the pins can be an easy way for the Capitol Police to identify the freshman class of lawmakers each Congress — or perhaps some of the more obscure members of the House.

And while spouses get issued their own pin, gendered presumptions persist. “I still get mistaken — even went over to the Senate Gallery and [a guard] said, ‘No spouses allowed,’” said third-term Michigan Democrat Debbie Dingell, who succeeded her husband, longtime Rep. John D. Dingell

Florida Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell said it wasn’t surprising that people are noticing the necklaces, considering the 116th Congress has more women in the House than ever before.

After modest gains by female lawmakers in the 2014 and 2016 elections, last year’s midterms brought nearly three dozen new women to the House, including Mucarsel-Powell. A record 102 women — 89 Democrats and 13 Republicans — serve in the chamber today in addition to four nonvoting female members.

That increase has not gone unnoticed.

“I think you can tell the difference when you’re in a room and there are women there because we have a different perspective,” Dingell said. “I think we try to be more pragmatic and we try [to solve] problems.”

UNITED STATES - JUNE 8: Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., leaves the House Democrats' caucus meeting in the Capitol on Wednesday, June 8, 2016. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell says having more women in the House has changed its dynamics. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The use of member pins dates back to 1975, when the House Administration Committee directed the sergeant-at-arms to buy 435 “identifying lapel pins” and issue them to House members. At the time, there were 19 women serving in the chamber.

Each Congress brings in a new pin and color scheme. The design for the 116th Congress features the House of Representatives’ seal, a prominent eagle in gold, against a red background with “116” in black block numbers at the bottom.

California Democrat Ted Lieu described the pin as having “sharp, serrated edges,” in a tweet on the first day of Congress. “That seems appropriate,” he quipped. But he may have been on to something.

The pin’s needle — in addition to those sharp, serrated edges — can harm fabric more delicate than thick suit lapels. For a few female members of the freshman class, that’s exactly what happened.

“[There were] holes in all my clothes, all my blouses, like my nice ones,” said Illinois Rep. Lauren Underwood, when asked what prompted the switch.

“At first, I used to do the pin, but then the pin would always be a little lopsided — it wasn’t cute,” the freshman Democrat said. “So I was like, ‘Let’s just make it easier.’”

Florida Democrat Donna E. Shalala echoed Underwood, saying the back of the pins tend to wear into the fabric of suits and dresses. “I spoke to other female members, and they noticed the same problem with their pins. So a few of us decided to put our pins on a chain and wear them as necklaces,” she said.

Underwood uses a  necklace chain that belongs to her mother. “She loaned it to the cause,” she said in a recent interview outside the Speaker’s Lobby as her mother stood beside her.

Pennsylvania Democrat Chrissy Houlahan said she can more easily access the necklace when she needs it — like Dingell, she’s gotten stopped by security who don’t realize she’s a member of Congress.

She also sees it as a reminder of her busy schedule.

“I also refer to it as my Hermione necklace since I have to be in three places at once,” she said, referencing the character in the “Harry Potter” series. “She used to spin hers to time travel.”

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