“But what was she wearing?”…of Women, Politics and the Media
Last Thursday I attended the monthly meeting of the Mecklenburg County chapter of Woman for President 2008 where UNCC lecturer Carol Gay was presenting the topic “Media Coverage of Women in Politics.”
Although I hadn’t attended any prior meetings of the WFP ’08 group, I knew I had to participate in this discussion. You see, just a few weeks before receiving the invitation, I had read the Washington Post’s coverage of Speaker Pelosi’s decision to appoint Alcee Hastings as chair of the House Intelligence Committee over the Committee’s Ranking Democrat, Jane Harman. While Pelosi’s choice to by-pass the ranking member may have been notable, the most astonishing aspect of the story was how it was played by the media, specifically, through the use of the term
I’m sure no one here will dispute that politics is a tough business and the relative success or failure of a politician may very well come down to personal relationships forged between political colleagues. In that vein, commentary on politicians having a falling-out or speculation regarding alliances and how they play into appointments or even policy decision would seem par for the course.
Even so, using a term like
to describe the political jockeying of two of the most influential members of Congress is hard to justify…especially when used by one of the most highly respected newspapers in the country. When Dennis Hastert became Speaker of the House, was he accused of being “Catty” for Committee Chairmanship appointments? No, he wasn’t. When Hastert gave out new Committee assignments in 2001, replacing some sitting Chairs with new appointees, were the re-assigned or ousted members described as “Devastated”? Was the decision process labeled a “Cat Fight”? Of course not.
Here are some of the phrases used to describe Hastert’s decision to appoint several new committee chairs:
sweeping shuffle of leaders
highly placed lawmakers were bumped
finds himself deprived of his longtime chairmanship
waged a bitter battle for the post
And here is a list of phrases used to describe Pelosi’s decision to not appoint Harman:
is still quite irked
she's not exactly being stoic
hard for her not to take it personally
Harman "really needs to grow up"
overtly aggressive campaign
Again, I feel compelled to point out that we’re citing CNN and the Washington Post, not E! Online and the National Inquirer.
Fast forward to last week’s discussion. Carol Gay (Women’s Studies, UNCC) asked the following question.
Compared to reporting on male politicians, do you see media coverage of women in politics that:
*Focuses more on personal characteristics, such as clothing or hair?
*Focuses more on personal relationships (such as who their husbands are and how many children or grandchildren they have)?
*Sexualizes women more, presenting their sexuality as disruptive or distracting forces in the world of government and politics?
*Presents women in more stereotypically female (and mostly negative) roles such as witches, Cinderellas, Lady Macbeths, or even as victims of violence?
*Highlights men’s positions or records on the issues more often then those of female candidates?
*Quotes male politicians backing their claims with evidence or reasoning more often than female candidates?
*Exaggerates female candidates’ combative behavior (such as interrupting, shaking fists, or pointing fingers)?
As you can imagine, it didn’t take long for the dozen or so professional women in attendance to come up with examples for each of the characteristics listed above (with links to but a few of these provided above.) As a group, we also discussed that this phenomenon is not limited to main stream media or to well-known right-leaning outlets. This type of double standard exists across the ideological spectrum, among journalists, bloggers and your average voter. (Don’t believe me? Google search any of the topics listed above with a candidate’s name and see what you get. It’s not all Fox News and the NY Sun, is it?)
Identifying the problem wasn’t the hard part. The more difficult task was determining what to do about it. One approach is the good ‘ol Letter To The Editor. Participants agreed that we must refuse to accept a double standard in our political coverage.
Case in point:
Just yesterday, I received an email from a WFP ’08 member who saw a Time Magazine article about the leading 2008 contenders. The article cited a recent poll showing Edwards gaining momentum on Clinton. The article went on to say,
Although Clinton's lead is slipping, poll respondents did give her three victories, saying she would make the best high school principal, the best babysitter and the best contestant on Dancing with the Stars.
As if it’s not amazing enough to have Time Magazine poll readers about whether a candidate would make a good babysitter or reality show contestant, it turns out to be complete BS. The poll DIDN’T INCLUDE ANY SUCH QUESTION
That’s right…Time Magazine
arbitrarily assigned the qualities of a baby sitter and reality show contestant to just one of the leading Presidential contenders…the female.
If you are as outraged as my fellow WFP '08 participant and I, feel free to contact Time at firstname.lastname@example.org and feel free to echo some of my compatriot's sentiment:
Please, Time Magazine, help me understand this last paragraph of Crashing the Party on page 43 of the April 9, 2007 issue regarding the so-called Time Election Index.
“Although Clinton's lead is slipping, poll respondents did give her three victories, saying she would make the best high school principal, the best babysitter and the best contestant on Dancing with the Stars.”
I’ve read it dozens of times now. I’m still shaking my head. Dismayed. Insulted. Irritated. Bewildered. Angry.
Incredulous, I searched the internet and found the 15 page report of the poll results from SRBI—and as I suspected—there were ZERO questions on the survey about high school principals, babysitters, or prospective contestants on Dancing with the Stars.
What the heck kind of magazine are you publishing these days? This is 2008! This particular commentary is the unfunniest I have ever read. It is blatantly irresponsible and reprehensible. Plus, the simplistic graphic exacerbates the commentary.
Never before has this country had such a dedicated, intelligent, experienced, passionate, highly-regarded Senator and superbly qualified presidential candidate who just so happens to be a woman—a woman who lived and worked as a public servant in the White House for eight years—a woman who deserves the utter respect of any fair-minded person on Planet Earth. The persons responsible for this journalistic atrocity ought to be lampooned in your next issue. The margin of error for this article is 100 percent.
Also, Karen Tumulty’s article on page 42 appears to be a lot tougher on Senator Clinton, using catastrophic adjectives such as disastrous to describe the then First Lady’s attempt to help jump-start health care reform. Tumulty’s “hunts and pecks” style of quoting Senator Clinton is incendiary compared to her “sedate” paraphrase of Edward’s plan.
Perhaps you should ask ALL of your political commentators and reporters to look up the definition of impeccable and consider how American politics might be different if they attempted to be impeccable with word, thought, and deed for the duration of the 2008 Presidential Campaign.
A thoroughly disgusted subscriber,
I guess we still have a long way to go, Baby.