According to some political pundits, Barbara Boxer faced the most challenging opponent of her Senate career in Carly Fiorina. Any advantageous position she’d had in previous elections as a female Democrat was at least partly erased by the fact that this time around, the GOP candidate was also a woman. And Fiorina had deep personal pockets that she could use to bolster her campaigns financial needs.
Over in the middle of the nation, two women were locked in a battle for the Oklahoma Governor’s office. In the midst of this historic event—the state would be picking its first woman governor—there was the press coverage. What were these female candidates wearing?
So goes the coverage of women in elections.
In that governor’s race, the Oklahoman reported on Mary Fallin’s response to getting her party’s nomination after the primary:
Fallin, dressed in a red suit and white pearls, gave a thumbs up to someone in the screaming crowd at the Will Rogers Theater.
Somehow it matters what she was wearing when she gave her acceptance speech? When Meg Whitman was running against Jerry Brown for California’s Governor’s seat, the LA Times remarked on how she ate a lunch one day on the campaign trail, saying she “cut a chili dog into quarters with a plastic knife and took a bite, pinky finger extended.” This is supposed to tell us something about how she would govern the Golden State?
The campaigners themselves have not been free from sexist remarks and rhetoric. Carly Fiorina herself said of Boxer, “God, what is that hair? So yesterday.”
Some examinations of elections have shown that sexist remarks negatively affect the polling of female candidates. This same study also showed, however, that by responding directly to such attacks as innapropriate or sexist, female candidates could capture something of a bounceback.
In other words, female candidates are both vulnerable to sexism in political news coverage and from their opponents, and in order to minimize the loss from such sexism they need to further delay debating whatever issues are on their platform to give time to defending themselves. One wonders if with the revelation that sexism works, that more female politicians won’t see stepped up attacks on this front, from campaign managers looking for easy hits in the polls.
In response to some of the media coverage that has focused more on what female politicians are wearing rather than their policy preferences, the Name It, Change It organization was founded. In its roundup of misogynistic news stories regarding female politicians and office holders, media outlets from all over the political spectrum were captured as contributing to the skewed reporting, including: