Media’s Guide to Covering Female Politicians


I have to confess, I’ve never called a coworker in the morning and asked what she was wearing in order for us to color coordinate.

So when I saw a Tweet from The Washington Times Senior Editor of Editorial and Opinion Emily Miller that read, “Pelosi and Democrat women didn’t coordinate wardrobes for presser. Big color clash. See photo,” I was a little perplexed.

When she followed that up with, “You need to offer free fashion advice for this lot. Every skirt hits below knee. I spy white panty hose. It’s bad,” in reply to one of her followers, I was even more befuddled.

And when a male follower called her out on the fact that no one would ever comment on a man’s wardrobe, and she retorted, “I’m a chick, I can get away with it. Plus I hate PC,” I was at a loss.

In 2009, I wrote about the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in the context of what we’d seen in the 2008 election coverage of Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton. It was all there then: Criticism of her sartorial choices? Check. Accusations of an aggressive, argumentative personality? Check. Characterization as an affirmative action pick? Check and mate. Fellow Justice Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings didn’t fair much better in the put-aside-her-gender column, what with the “she plays softball = she must be a lesbian = she can’t be an unbiased judge” equation. The witch hunt, just missing a few pitchforks and burning torches, that pursued Nancy Pelosi as she relinquished her speaker post in the House to John Boehner was equally depressing.

With the 2012 election season gunning at the starting line, Ms. Miller’s offense at the House Democrat women’s wardrobes will probably be the least of the violations we’ll see in the media and from fellow candidates in the next 16 months. So, in the interest of public service, here, I offer a guide on how–or, rather, how not– to cover female candidates. Red light, yellow light, go:

RED LIGHT: Cease all further use
Clothing, appearance and attractiveness It’s a hard line to walk when you’re a woman in power: your clothing can be too dowdy, too mannish, too feminine, too provocative. Most women in male-centric workplaces can sympathize with this one, as an outfit has to strike a perfect balance between authority and approachability. Hair and makeup tiptoes between groomed and presentable; too over-done and therefore shallow; or not coiffed enough and ergo sloppy. I have yet to see what effect any of this has on a woman’s ability to lead. Unless a candidate shows up at a debate in fairy wings and bright blue hair extensions, leave the descriptions–and the judgment–out of the story.

Likewise, evaluations of a candidate’s physical attractiveness need to be left on the cutting room floor. The argument could be made that America has always liked its handsome, charming male politicians. But the hyper-focus on women’s attractiveness, from Sarah Palin’s “Caribou Barbie” nickname, to a Pawlenty advisor’s comments on Michele Bachmann’s “sex appeal,” take things to a new, and unacceptable, level. (And watch out if they don’t measure up to conventional standards of beauty–that’s when things get downright mean.) They’re running for political office, not Miss Universe. Their perceived level of attractiveness is immaterial.

Gendered language General rule: if you wouldn’t write it about a male politician, don’t write it about a female politician. If they are words that have been created specifically to describe undesirable women, all the more reason to banish them from your lexicon. Using words that have come into being for the sole purpose of putting down women is not a safe path to responsible journalism. That means any words or phrases like “bitch slap,” harpy, belonging in the kitchen, nags, ex-wives, castration, bitchy, flake, nutcrackers, witches, bimbo, claws, etc., should be put out to pasture. (For a refresher on some of the best of these from 2008, watch this excellent video of cable news sexism.)

Stereotyping women’s emotions It’s fun to interpret women’s reactions to events in light of sexist cliches. (Women, am I right? They’re craaaazy!) But it’s not responsible. For example, check out this anchor, who manages to turn the fact that women are often more productive members of Congress into a characterization of all women as irrational, manipulative harpies. Any mention of PMS, moodiness or questioning whether they’re too soft to lead (John Boehner’s tears should have at least put an end to that argument) should be going, going, gone.

Using their gender to question their eligibility This one’s usually a little more subtle–few journalists will come straight out and proclaim, “Women should not be political leaders.” But allusions to women’s rightful place, questioning their devotion to their children in the context of their demanding careers, wondering about the state of children out on the campaign trail, et cetera, happen nonetheless. Male politicians with large broods are portrayed as devoted family men. Women with even one young child are often depicted as bad mothers. Again: if you wouldn’t question a man’s ability to lead because of his family, or devotion to his wife and children, don’t do so with women.

YELLOW LIGHT: Proceed with extreme caution.
Her family
As stated above, questioning a woman’s ability to devote herself fully to a job if she has children, or doubting her competency as a mother should she decide to pursue a political career, is a clear no-zone. Women across the country navigate these waters every day, balancing work, family, philanthropy and myriad other competing priorities; if a woman is smart enough to make it into the political arena, she’s probably smart enough to figure out the dual parenting/childcare situation. That said, there are situations where a candidate’s family is fair game: when their family informs the policies the candidate is proposing and values for which they stand. For example: Rumors are circulating, and being reported on, that Michele Bachmann’s husband, Marcus, is gay. Fact: The marriage they have chosen to enter into is their business and theirs alone, as is Mr. Bachmann’s sexuality; gay witch hunts are never okay. However, his documented practice of “pray the gay away” therapies for his patients is a relevant issue, given Rep. Bachmann’s often anti-gay rights stance. “Rep. Bachmann, is your husband gay?” is an unfair and irrelevant question. “Rep. Bachmann, do you, like your husband, believe that homosexuality is an illness that can be cured through the Christian faith? And how does that belief influence your stance on issues like gay marriage and enforcement of equal opportunity laws for LGBT workers?” is an extremely fair question.

Talk of the “women’s vote” Yes, women as a voting block are a powerful thing. But the point of feminism is to allow us to evaluate all the options before us and make the best choice, regardless of gender. That means that different women will vote differently and see the world in different ways. It also means that the mere presence of a woman is not enough to secure the “woman’s vote.” Nor does the appearance of women in the candidate pool necessarily connote any tangible progress for women. Unless those female candidates actually back policies that would support women, whether enforcing equal pay policies or affordable access to women’s healthcare, we can stop patting ourselves on the back for being so progressive when it comes to women in politics. To wit: the 2010 “Year of the Woman” actually saw a decline in women in Congress for the first time in 30 years.

Fair is fair Sexism is sexism, no matter to which party the candidate in question belongs. It’s great to call out sexist treatment of female leaders. It’s less great if you’re only doing it when those candidates belong to the party you support. It’s even less great if you’re doing it while simultaneously hurling sexist language toward members of the party you oppose. On the same coin, playing the “sexism” card every time someone makes a negative comment about a candidate, when there is no actual sexist language present in that comment, is a step backward. The boy who cried wolf lost his sheep. The journalist who cried sexism does a disservice to those who actually experience it by devaluing the meaning of the word.

Furthermore, sexism is sexism, no matter who’s spewing it. Using a female writer or anchor as the conduit through which a sexist message is delivered does not make the message any more palatable. If anything, it makes it more insulting. So no, Emily Miller, you cannot get away with it because you’re a “chick.”

Everything else
Reporting on women in politics is simple: treat them as if they were a candidate, not a female candidate. Write about them as if they were a person running for office, not a woman running for office. Question their policies and record as politicians, not as women in politics. Leave their gender out of it, and we’ll not only have more equal playing field for the host of 2012 candidates, but viewers and readers will also be more able to evaluate candidates based on their policies and qualifications, rather than their closets or husbands.

Any guidelines you think should be included that I missed? Feel free to leave them in the comments.


About Cassandra A. Gaddo

Cassandra A. Gaddo is managing director of Step Up Women's Network in Chicago. A passionate advocate for gender equality and the advancement of women and girls, she is also a board member of Rape Victim Advocates, and a Young Professionals Ambassador for The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She writes and speaks about local, national and international women's issues, including in her blog, "Twice As Well."