Political InQueery: Covering Women Politicians

Mary Fallin of OKAccording 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:

  • Gawker’s “anonymous” story about a man who had sex with then-Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell
  • The Boston Herald’s repeated references to the fashion of gubernatorial candidate Jill Stein
  • The Huffington Post’s dozen-plus stories on Secretary of State’s Hillary Clinton’s hairstyle
  • Vogue Magazine’s article on New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s weight loss, and suggestion she should keep it off

These attacks on women are the product of lazy thinking and desperation, jarring the focus away from issues critical to the electorate and narrowing things down to how much someone paid for her housekeeper’s salary, how her outfit hides or reveals her curves, and who the hottest woman in Congress is today. What these pot shots also distort are the political agendas of the candidates during the election, and what they’ll be once they’re elected. As we have seen since November 2, many women recently elected to Congress this year are socially conservative, and it’s worth asking what effect they’ll have collectively on woman-focused policies and laws. Certainly in congressional sessions of years past absolutely nothing of consequence to women’s health was even introduced in Congress (here I’m thinking of several years at the start of the Bush Administration), not even things like resolutions to avoid risk factors for heart disease. While we’re all directing our attention to how a woman eats a hot dog or what a candidate does at a private party, what are we missing? It might make a difference to the millions of women who aren’t in the media spotlight.

by Everett Maroon
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Everett Maroon is a memoirist, essayist, and fiction writer originally from New Jersey and now living in Walla Walla, Washington. His blog is transplantportation.com and he tweets at @EverettMaroon.

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3 Comments Have Been Posted

"These attacks on women are the product of lazy thinking"


As the daughter of a journalist, I fear that accountability in media reports is a thing of the past. This "lazy thinking" is just want the public wants, though. HuffPo wouldn't publish stories about Madam Clinton's hair if their readers weren't responsive to it.

Women need to stop watching "Dancing With The Stars" and start reading the news. If they read the news (real news, mind you), they would see the double-standard in reporting and at least some of them might start speaking out about this sexism.

Ladies! Use your brain to gain knowledge about what the media and your politicians are doing instead of wasting your brain cells on meaningless TV shows, facebook and shopping. Know the issues and how they affect you. Please. Before it's too late.

"Women need to stop watching

"Women need to stop watching "Dancing With The Stars" and start reading the news. If they read the news (real news, mind you), they would see the double-standard in reporting and at least some of them might start speaking out about this sexism."
Everybody needs to read news from multiple sources in order to get the big picture, not just women. In this age of creative journalistic integrity, you really can't rely on one source claiming to be "fair and balanced" or "the real news" to be informed IMHO. And I'm not talking about reading The Economist, NY Times, WSJ, and local rag every morning (although if you have time and stamina for that, more power to you). If you can atleast scan the headlines with the first and last paragraphs of the big stories, you'll be way ahead the rest of the crowd.
Personally I don't think there's anything wrong with commentary on fashion and style, there just needs to be moderation, and that cannot be THE ONLY THING to cover on female candidates.


I just wrote a paper about this! It's not due until the 2nd, so I -could- have time to add in a few more things, like the Mary Fallin's Pearls bit or the Vogue thing. Excellent piece.

Also, the Gawker story, while representing a nadir of journalism to me (they let the guy be ANONYMOUS! Anonymity isn't for attempted public-stage slut-shaming, it's for people who worry for the safety of their jobs or lives if they go on record!!), was about how he *didn't* have sex with her after discovering she prefers not to wax. It was a horrible piece. I already had very little respect for the Gawker empire before that and now it is ALL GONE!

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