Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Do Women Politicians Suffer Because of Emphasis on Their Appearance?

The United States claims to be one of the most egalitarian countries in the world, but it was essentially 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation that Barack Obama, a man of color, was elected president. Part of the reason for this can be seen in the controversial "Birther" movement which claimed that he wasn't an American citizen and that his Hawaiian birth certificate was a forgery, and ignored the fact that no matter where he was born, Obama was legally considered an American citizen due to the fact that his mother was. And it's striking that John McCain, who we know was born not in the US proper, but in the Panama Canal Zone, never faced any accusations that he could not run for office.

But even more ingrained in our cultural prejudice is our resistance to women leaders. Unlike many of our allies, such as the United Kingdom, India, and even Turkey--an Islamic nation--we have never elected a woman to our nation's executive position. Is this in part because our culture's emphasis on women's appearance undermines their success in politics?

Coverage of a Woman's Appearance May Hurt Her Politically

It has been said that when a woman is running for office, news coverage of her wardrobe and appearance is much higher than it would be for a man's. According to one study, that hurts women's chances at winning an election, whether the coverage is positive. That's right, the study says that whether we're talking about Hillary Clinton's supposedly unfashionable pantsuits or Sarah Palin's history as a beauty queen, just talking about a woman's appearance reduces her chances of election.

Creative Commons image by Therealbs2002
This is from a study by Name It, Change It, a political action group focused on exposing and undermining feminism in politics. They sent fake news stories about a primary election between two fictional candidates "Jane Smith" and "Dan Jones." When the stories were focused exclusively on the candidates' responses to an education bill, voters were evenly split. But when the news coverage included neutral, positive, or negative coverage of Smith's appearance, she lost four, six, or seven points, respectively.

This effect may be even more important when we consider that news coverage changes when women are running for office, focusing more on character and less on issues.

Or Perhaps Voters Don't Care about Appearance

In response to the Name It, Change It study, the Washington Post ran its own version of the study. Essentially, they protested the Name It, Change It study on two bases: 1) the descriptions were unrealistic and may have increased bias, and 2) the study only inserted appearance descriptions for the female candidate.

In their own study, the Washington Post found that actually women did better than male candidates when appearance was discussed, no matter whether the coverage was positive, negative, or neutral.
The Washington Post also pointed to its own analysis of news coverage, conducted in 2010, that showed male and female candidates' appearance was actually discussed essentially equally.

The Issue Isn't Appearance

Based on the Washington Post study, it's likely that it's something more complex and subtle than appearance that hurts women candidates. It's likely that we are still having trouble as a society adjusting to how women in power interact with our traditional notions of gender roles. This is highlighted by the New York Times article about the purses of women in politics, which gives extensive coverage to the existence of "purse boys," male aides that sometimes hold their bosses' bags.

This inversion of the power dynamic is emasculating, something that American men fear perhaps more than anything, and something that we can see coded in Tim Gunn's criticism of Clinton's pantsuits as a sign that she's confused about her gender.

On the other hand, women in politics can find themselves in the crosshairs for being too feminine, as for example when Michelle Obama responded to a question about whether she would try Botox. By responding to the question, feminist critics felt, she was giving credibility to a condescending question that never should have been asked.

Public domain image
These frictions show just how uncertain we as a society are about power, politics, and gender. It's been a hundred years since women were given the vote. Maybe it will take another fifty before we are prepared to accept that they will sometimes win the vote, too.

About the Author: Dr. Matthew B. Candelaria (PhD, U of Kansas 2006) is a freelance writer who grew up in the 1970s and was strongly influenced by his mother's strident feminist opinions and participation in the fight for equality. He writes on a diverse array of topics, including gender, medicine, science, and the environment.

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