National Clothesline
Obama raises shirt price issue – again
Complaints that drycleaners charge women more for cleaning than men have been a sore point for
the industry for years. In particular, people wonder why it costs more to clean a women’s blouse than
a man’s shirt.
The industry, both through its trade associations and in interactions between cleaners and
customers, has tried to explain the apparent discrepancy, but apparently these explanations have not
been included in briefings that reach the desk of the President of the United States. Barack Obama
keeps raising the issue, most recently last month during
a pay equity event at the White House.
After discussing his administration’s progress on equal pay for equal work, the president quipped,
“We’ll talk about drycleaners next, right, because I know that — I don’t know why it costs more for
Michelle’s blouse than my shirt.”  
The line drew laughs from the mostly female audience just as it did two years ago when, at a White
House forum on women and the economy, he made a similar comment.
While Obama can get laughs with this line from a sympathetic audience, it elicits groans across a
drycleaning industry that is tired of accusations of gender-based pricing discrimination.
Nora Nealis, executive director of the National Cleaners Association, took her complaint straight to
the top —
in a letter addressed to Obama. His remark, she said, smeared “the quintessential small
business, the drycleaner, by suggesting you should be targeting them for gender-biased pricing.”
Gender-biased pricing of drycleaning is, she said, a myth perpetuated by the media, one that can
be disproved with math.
“We hope that once you understand the math, you will follow up your national conversation about
drycleaners by publicly correcting the mistaken impression that the media has helped to foster among
many Americans, including our First Family,” she wrote.
The fact is, she said, drycleaners do not charge more for a woman’s shirt than a man’s shirt; they
charge more for a hand-ironed shirt than for a machine-pressed shirt.
“Hand ironing takes more time and requires more skill, and therefore costs the cleaner more to
produce,” she explained.
On the other hand, typical men’s dress shirts can be machine finished at a rate of 20 to 30 an hour.
“If you tried to wear one of Mrs. Obama’s blouses, it would not fit you properly and, if you tried to
squeeze into it, you might even damage it! The same thing happens on the automated equipment —
her shirt either doesn’t fit, so it must be hand ironed, or the trim makes it unsuitable for automated
finishing, just like your tuxedo shirt.”
Nealis invited the president to join her on a visit to a drycleaner the next time he is in New York.
“Bring your shirt and the First Lady’s and we’ll show you firsthand what we’re talking about. Myth
vs. math.”
Then, she said, she wants the president “to right the wrong you’ve inadvertently done the nation’s
hard-working drycleaners by setting the record straight. You now have everyone talking and thinking
about it, and this is the perfect time for cleaners to have the truth told to the American public.”
There was, indeed, quite a bit of talk about the issue in the days following Obama’s remarks. And
while the explanation of the pricing difference may not yet be understood in the Oval Office, plenty of
pundits seem to have gotten it.
One example was an article published by the Chicago Sun-Times by Katherine Mangu-Ward, who
wrote: “Here’s the thing: Drycleaners can offer cheap laundering and pressing of men’s dress shirts
because men’s clothing is boring and uniform. They use a standard-sized machine to quickly and
efficiently remove wrinkles from damp shirts. But women’s blouses have much more variety in terms
of fabric, cut, and construction.”
“Policymakers and politicians often know very little about running a business,” Mangu-Ward said,
adding “usually even less about blue collar businesses like drycleaning.
“In fact, there’s a perfectly good explanation for the drycleaning price differential, an industry
standard practice of offering equity wherever possible, and a bunch of relevant facts about technology
and small business finance that are not immediately obvious to the layman.”
Even, apparently, when that layman is the President of the United States.