Hillary Clinton and the media: from intelligent and fair to appallingly sexist

by Katie Heimer, National Organization for Women

Do sexist stereotypes undermine the credibility of women politicians?

Although Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is not the first woman to run for president, she is the first to be the frontrunner for her party's nomination — which makes her both a media magnet and a media target. So NOW decided to take a look at how the media has covered Clinton in recent months. What we found spans the spectrum from intelligent and fair to appallingly sexist and pointless.

Examples of the latter fell into two main categories: those that trivialize female politicians by focusing on their clothing, hair, or taste in home décor, and those that position gender as her most important characteristic, playing on gender stereotypes in order to call into question her ability to provide strong, effective leadership.

Fortunately, these examples (yes, even some of them from female reporters) are countered by occasional displays of serious, responsible journalism. With sexism still deeply ingrained in our culture, it may be unrealistic to expect the media to be completely unbiased, but it is nonetheless important to approach the news with a vigilant and critical eye.

Trivializing Women Politicians

Female politicians have long struggled with a double standard: while being criticized or perceived as "soft" or "weak" if they come across as too traditionally feminine, they are also accused of being too "hard" or "strident" if they come off as assertive and powerful — traditionally masculine attributes. While these impossible standards are being subverted by successful women politicians such as new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, many journalists don't seem to know what to do with strong women. These professionals, who should know better, often revert to old-fashioned sexism in describing women leaders (e.g. denigrating women for qualities, like aggressiveness or ambition, that are seen as positive attributes in men), scrutinizing their appearance, and concentrating on their roles as dutiful wives and mothers to the exclusion of their political accomplishments and records on the issues.

Indeed, in Pelosi's first days as Speaker of the House, The Washington Post's Style section ran an article on Nov. 10 dissecting her choice of clothing for her swearing in ceremony, in which writer Robin Givhan used the word "chic" to describe her appearance and claimed that "an Armani suit, for a woman, is a tool for playing with the boys without pretending to be one." As Annette Fuentes responded in a Feb. 13 USA Today opinion piece, "I would wager that Pelosi is one woman who doesn't play around with anyone."

Nothing New for Hillary Clinton

Clinton is no stranger to this kind of treatment from the press. An opinion article in The Oklahoman referenced her "frequent wearing of dark pants suits to conceal her bottom-heavy figure." Political cartoonist Nick Anderson created an animated cartoon which ran on the Houston Chronicle website featuring a curvaceous Clinton being asked, in the words of a popular song, "What you gonna do with all that junk? All that junk inside your trunk?" Without the accompanying drawing, one could have assumed that Anderson was referring personal baggage, but the cartoon made clear that he was also making a sly dig at her shape. When was the last time an opinion piece or cartoon commented on a male candidate's figure?

Adding insult to injury, The New York Times published a Maureen Dowd piece (titled "Mama Hugs Iowa") on Jan. 31 charging that as First Lady, Clinton showed off "a long parade of unflattering outfits and unnervingly changing hairdos." So we not only have to hear about what she's wearing today, but what she wore (and how she styled her hair) in 1992. On Feb. 9, Reuters news agency reported fashion designer Donatella Versace's advice that "Hillary Clinton should tap into her feminine side and wear dresses and skirts instead of trousers."

A Florida paper, the Sun-Sentinel, chimed in on Feb. 16 with an article by Jura Koncius about Rosemarie Howe, Clinton's interior designer, and how she helped the Senator decorate her Embassy Row house in a "comfortable yet elegant" scheme of "camel and coral."

Fuentes' USA Today op-ed provided a much-needed reality check, pointing out that "Women in government stand out because of their strength, intellect, and ideas — not because of their hemlines. Yet here we are in 2007 still treating powerful women like a novelty." She expressed justifiable concern that "focusing on the clothing choices of serious female political players risks rendering them less than serious," something these reporters and editors know all too well.

Are We Ready For "President Mom"?

As the reality of a female presidential frontrunner sinks in, the popular question seems to be "Are we ready for a woman president?" This subject has inspired countless articles over the past several months, and Senator Clinton's name is scarcely mentioned without reference to her sex. This is to be expected — Clinton's gender does make her standing as Democratic frontrunner groundbreaking. However, journalists seem fixated on this one aspect, as if her gender wholly defined Clinton as a candidate, and not in a good way. On Jan. 22, ABC News anchor Charles Gibson, who reportedly refused to share the anchor desk with a woman, even asked Clinton skeptically, "would you be in this position were it not for your husband?"

U.S. News & World Report's Gloria Borger accused her on Feb. 12 of using a so-called "mommy strategy" to soften her image and appeal to voters by playing up her role as a mother and wife, as if there's something suspect about a woman who is both a devoted parent and an accomplished politician. Others, grabbing for a clever play on words, have taken to rhyming "Obama" with "Mama," as in a Jan. 23 Washington Post editorial in which Eugene Robinson writes, "Obama, here comes Mama. And she doesn't play."

In a Feb. 14 Seattle Post-Intelligencer column, Susan Paynter notes that the language used to discuss and refer to a candidate can affect public perception. Of recent modes of addressing Clinton, she suggests "for title, try Senator, not Mrs. or Mama."

Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's talk show Hardball, has become notorious for his sexist remarks about Clinton. On Dec. 19, 2006, he charged that she was being coy about her political ambitions, comparing her to "a stripteaser saying she's flattered by the attention," and on two separate occasions — Jan. 25 and 26, 2007, he referred to her as an "uppity woman." In the aftermath of the Congressional election on Nov. 8, 2006, he discussed her delivery of a "campaign barn burner speech," which, he suggested was "harder to give for a woman," because it can "grate on some men when they listen to it, [like] fingers on a blackboard." Not content to level his sexist criticism on Clinton alone, he continued his rant, wondering how newly elected Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi could "do the good fight against the president...without screaming? How does she do it without becoming grating?"

With so many reporters and columnists unable to see past Senator Clinton's gender, it was refreshing on Jan. 22 to see Salon.com's Tim Grieve point out the obvious: Clinton isn't running for "first woman president," she's "running for president, period."

Despite the rampant sexism in the media's treatment of female politicians, it's important to note that the issue that has attracted the most negative attention to Clinton has nothing to do with her gender, but relates to her Iraq war authorization vote in 2002. While the media's hounding of Clinton on this issue may be a bit extreme and counterproductive, it's worth noting that this is an attack that deals with a genuinely political issue, one that any male candidate might face (but hasn't so far).

What You Can Do

Even in some of the most highly regarded and credible of news outlets, blatant examples of sexism still appear daily — and they are so ubiquitous that it's easy to internalize the messages without noting that men are treated differently. By pointing them out, we hope to encourage our readers to approach news coverage with a dose of healthy skepticism, no matter the source, and to speak up when they encounter unacceptable sexism.

What can you do? Write formal letters to the editor, or send emails to the TV or radio show, voicing your concern and disapproval when you find evidence of sexism in their coverage of women candidates and leaders. Some of it is intentional, but some "sexism disguised as facts" comes from sheer habit — and you can help them break the habit NOW.

Sign our petition demanding that the media refrain from using gender stereotypes in their coverage of presidential candidates.

Though many in the media approach Hillary Clinton's candidacy as a kind of novelty act, there is still hope that intelligent journalism will prevail and that before long, we'll be hearing more about Clinton's opinions and qualifications and less about her hairstyles, home decor and fashion sense.

article originally published at http://www.now.org/issues/media/070315hillary_media.html.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey