Lawmaker who broke House floor dress code to protest lack of mask mandate speaks out: 'I had proved my point'

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Elise Solé
·6 min read
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In February, Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell broke an Iowa Capitol dress code by wearing jeans to the House floor, to protest the building's lack of mask mandate. (Photo: Courtesy of Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell)
In February, Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell broke an Iowa Capitol dress code by wearing jeans to the House floor, to protest the building's lack of mask mandate. (Photo: Courtesy of Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell)

An Iowa lawmaker is unapologetic for wearing jeans on the House floor — a violation of State Capitol dress code — for exposing, what she calls, the hypocrisy of COVID-19 rules.

On Feb. 2, Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, a Democratic state representative, wore jeans to the State Capitol, despite denim (along with tank tops, halter tops and shorts) being banned in the chamber (men are also required to wear a coat and tie when Senate is in session). However, the eight-term House member was testing a theory: If the House refused to enforce a face mask mandate to curb COVID-19 infections, would they enforce a dress code?

"We spend a lot of time in that [chamber]," Wessel-Kroeschell, 61, tells Yahoo Life. "I put plexiglass in front of my desk, yet people have leaned over it without wearing masks. I've had to shoo them away — it's dangerous." This month, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds abolished the state's mask mandate — one that had only been put in place in Nov. 2020 — along with social distancing rules in public spaces, including in state buildings. Iowa's decision (along with that of Montana, which this month lifted its mask mandate) was confirmed a mistake by Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "I think we're not out of the woods yet," she told local station KCCI this month.

Iowa has reported more than 330,000 positive COVID-19 cases and more than 5,400 total deaths from COVID-19. As of Feb. 8, six Iowa Capitol employees have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Associated Press, including Rep. Amy Nielsen, who has said she believes she was infected at the Capitol.

"After the governor lifted the mask mandate, we have people all over the Capitol not wearing masks or wearing them inappropriately," says Wessel-Kroeschell. "One legislator who sits two rows ahead of me [wears his] around his nose."

Wessel-Kroeschell, who is not the only Democrat to oppose the lack of masking in the Capitol, generally favors dresses and leggings for work, but wore a newly-purchased pair of jeggings from Chico's — her first-ever pair, which she calls "amazing" — as part of her experiment. When she walked into the chamber, according to her, a chief clerk asked her to change her pants

"It was a little unnerving," Wessel-Kroeschell tells Yahoo Life. "But the advantage of getting older is that sometimes you gotta make a statement."

It was a busy day for Wessel-Kroeschell, a leading House proponent of women's reproductive freedom, who spent her morning debating a Republican-backed bill called HF53 that, in part, requires doctors to inform pregnant women that medical abortions can possibly be reversed by taking the hormone progesterone. It's a theory not supported by science, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), and one Wessel-Kroeschell calls "horrible" because "it's asking doctors to lie to women about abortion."

Later in the day, when preparing to deliver remarks on a crime bill, Wessel-Kroeschell pushed a button under her desk that signals her request to speak. She says she was silenced by House Speaker Pat Grassley, the Iowa state representative from the 50th district (and grandson of Senator Chuck Grassley). "It's been brought to my attention you are in violation of Rule 20, following House dress code, as well as Rule 10," he said in a video sent to Yahoo Life by Wessel-Kroeschell. "You will not be recognized to speak for debate. You can continue to vote from the floor."

"That was the moment I realized I had proved my point," says Wessel-Kroeschell. "[Although] others may have wanted me to be embarrassed."

Grassley's silencing tactic could have worked earlier in her career — Wessel-Kroeschell describes her former self as so shy that her college professors at the University of Northern Iowa and Iowa State University might not remember her today. "As a young person, if I had to give a speech, I would lose my voice," she says. What changed: Finding topics she's passionate about, including reproductive rights, domestic violence (Wessel-Kroeschell once served as the president of ACCESS, a non-profit for abuse survivors in Iowa), public health and yes, dress codes.

Years ago, Wessel-Kroeschell says she once opposed a dress code at her now-adult daughter's school, for not including sweatpants as acceptable attire. "There's a sexist, racist and economic injustice to dress codes," she says. "[Not everyone] has clean or tailored pants" or the ability to afford new clothes that meet the standards of various school dress codes. Still, the belief that women should dress a particular way (modest, feminine) starts in childhood with an exhausting number of girls (and less frequently, boys) penalized for breaking school dress codes, sometimes by measuring how their bodies fill clothes. Following one example in 2018, Christia Brown, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Kentucky told Yahoo Life, there is "societal belief that girls are the bearers of morality, whether it means accepting or rejecting a date or managing others’ sexual frustration."

And these presumptions don't end in adulthood. Last year, U.K. Parliament member Tracy Brabin defended wearing an off-the-shoulder dress after online criticism, which the politician called "slightly absurd" pointing to a broken ankle changing her posture, which caused the garment to slide. And Arizona congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema, who has worn short dresses, colorful wigs and thigh-high boots, has been mocked for her look.

What stands out to Wessel-Kroeschell about her recent protest, is less Grassley's reaction, but rather that someone noticed and brought it to his attention, given her physical distance from the House speaker that day.

Wessel-Kroeschell says she has not communicated with Grassley since the incident. "He is not someone I have regular interaction with. He has not asked me to apologize and [if he did], he would not get one."

Grassley's spokesperson Melissa Deatsch tells Yahoo Life, "The speaker has been clear and consistent since the start of session. There is no way to enforce a mask mandate short of having state patrol remove a dually elected Representative from the floor, which is not something he is willing to do, for masks or for jeans. Rep. Wessel-Kroeschell was in violation of a decade-old House rule and it is within the Speaker of the House’s discretion to handle such violations as he sees fit.”

But Wessel-Kroeschell is firm in her belief that "If you can enforce the dress code, you can enforce a mask mandate."

And her efforts did not go unnoticed by women and men. "I have heard from lots and lots of happy people," she says. "I hear 'You go, girl' and I laugh when the younger generation calls me 'Badass.'"

And those jeggings? Wessel-Kroeschell purchased two more pairs. "I wear them all the time." Just not to work.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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