I would like to initiate a fun reader game: go to Google and type in ‘Hilary Clinton pant suits’, and then count how many articles have run across the media about this important and fascinating subject.
Undoubtedly, Clinton takes center stage when we think about powerful female politicians today. Since leaving her husband’s shadow, she has carved a space for herself in the male dominated world of US politics. As a woman who coins herself a “pantsuit aficionado” in her Twitter bio besides “glass ceiling cracker” and “women & kids advocate,” she has, of course, poked fun at the on-going pantsuit debacle.
But I do not think it is presumptuous to assume that the same level of conversation does not occur about President Obama’s colorful shirts. The mainstream media message is clear: no matter how powerful you are, or how powerful you may become, as a woman your appearance will always define you.
“I want to say congrats to Chelsea Clinton” said Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show in April this year. “Last week she announced that she is expecting her first child. If it’s a girl it will get some of Chelsea’s old hand-me-downs. And if it’s a boy it will get some of Hilary’s.”
Just as the media’s obsession with a gossip-induced scandal ends (I.E. Monica Lewinsky), a juicier topic begins. How many more articles do we need to see about the different shades of pant suits that Hilary Clinton owns before we recognize that even when women make it into positions of power within the government they are not treated the same as their male counterparts?
A study in 2013 by the organization Name it, Change It, explored the link between a female politicians electoral chances and the media coverage of their appearance. The study found that the coverage, whether positive, negative or neutral has a detrimental effect on whether the woman is seen as competent in office. Julie Burton, head of the Women’s Media Centre, said, “When a woman candidate’s looks become part of the election story, she loses ground.”
Clinton has said that she has no plans to run for office in 2016, however many believe that there is a real chance that she could become the first female US president, and with this, one of the most powerful people in the world.
However, it’s 2014, and women make up only 21.8 percent of politicians across the world.
Female politicians are subjected to the same appearance based prejudices that normal women face globally on a day-to-day basis. However, the media’s obsession with what’s featured in the wardrobes of these powerful women has become more problematic. It is impossible to be taken seriously for your speech on foreign and domestic policies when the media is only interested in what color shoes you wore that day.
By reducing female politicians to their clothing we are in effect reducing their ability to legislate change, as we choose pant suits over policy.
This obsession with the aesthetic brings with it the inevitable question of what it means to be a female in politics both historically and today. Unfortunately, the examples of female politicians are few and far between, and in the UK, the only woman elected Prime Minister was Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Thatcher despised feminism and all that came with it, stating: “The feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.” So adverse was she to all that was feminine, that during her tenure in office she only installed one woman into the cabinet.
There is a general consensus that when female politicians come into positions of power such as public office, that they will introduce more policies that directly affect women such as childcare, workplace regulations, abortion rights, birth control and other female-centric issues. Since Thatcher was so against such beneficial policies and perhaps the implication that her gender would lead her there, she famously repealed the law that required that children get free milk at school.
Thatcher’s anti-feminist and even anti-woman stance felt excessive. It begs the question as to whether her actual awareness of the prejudices that are associated with womanhood meant that she purposefully masculinized herself to avoid the stereotyping that so clearly goes alongside women in the political field. By distancing herself from all women, and presenting herself as an anomaly, she in turn distancing herself from the inevitable focus on femininity and appearance that appears when women choose to make feminism and minorities their priority in government.
Although Clinton’s career has had its fair share of problematic issues, she has shown a real concern for civil rights. In 2006 she voted against the bill to stop same sex marriage, declaring that she supported gay marriage both personally and by law. Her existence is a good example of how far we’ve come from such politicians as Thatcher; a woman so brainwashed by the patriarchal government to believe her own gender was nothing but a hindrance.
Until we reach gender parity in governments across the world we will not live in a fair society. Our political representatives need to be representative of the population and yet parliaments across the West are filled with white middle class men debating the plight of women with no real sense of what this entails.