How many elections can be hailed as “The Year of the Woman” before anything actually changes? Hint: no answer to this question exists yet.
This year, it would seem that things should be different. A woman is speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and there is a viable female candidate for president. But peek below the surface at some of the press coverage, and it is clear that women still find themselves caught up in a double standard of press scrutiny that eludes their male opponents.
Consider recent coverage of the hotly contested Massachusetts 5th Congressional District race, where both the Democratic and Republican front-runners derive substantial name recognition from famous, deceased family members. Niki Tsongas is the wife of the late senator and presidential candidate, Paul Tsongas. Jim Ogonowski is the brother of John Ogonowski, the American Airlines pilot killed on September 11. Two candidates with close relationships to men of courage, but the description of their own qualifications for office could not have been more different.
The headlines on the Republican front-runner declared that the “GOP Sees Cause for Hope in the 5th District,” and described Mr. Ogonowski as “a candidate with a compelling life story.” A search for the details on this compelling story revealed Mr. Ogonowski’s background as a farmer and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel with a national profile arising out of the tragic death of his brother. The rest of the article focused on the excitement of the Republican Party over their chances for this open seat, with no description of his specific qualifications to serve in Congress.
The article on Niki Tsongas’ front-runner status carried the derisive headline, “Tsongas Campaign Focuses on Name,” followed by the subheading, “Critics question her experience.” The article dismissed Tsongas’ statements about what she learned from her years in Washington as the wife of a congressman and senator by noting she ran a home dessert-catering business while collecting “whimsical” antiques. The article also reported her campaign’s efforts to “bolster” her qualifications by highlighting her board work and role as a community college dean.
Maybe Niki Tsongas’ law degree and legal practice was not a sufficient qualification to warrant inclusion in the article. Or maybe it was an example of implicit gender bias — the unexamined stereotyping that emerges when people step outside their societal roles. The only thing missing was a critique of Tsongas’ wardrobe. But for that we only have to look to coverage of Hillary Clinton.
As first lady, Hillary Clinton endured endless press scrutiny of her changing hairstyles. As a Senate candidate, it was the critique of her pantsuits. As a senator, it was a cleavage sighting while addressing higher education issues from the Senate floor. And through her many years of public life, there have been the recurring references to her weight and her legs, as though her body shape was a credential equal to her Wellesley College and Yale Law School degrees, her service as an attorney at the Children’s Defense Fund and the judiciary committee of the House of Representatives, and her years spent in private practice.
But even these credentials, along with Sen. Clinton’s eight years in the White House, apparently lack sufficient gravitas. The same article which questioned Tsongas’ credentials compared her to Hillary Clinton by stating that both dismissed questions about their inexperience by “touting” their husband’s last names. And it seems like only yesterday when Hillary Rodham Clinton was vilified for retaining use of her birth name.
As long as these implicit biases continue in the press coverage of female candidates, “The Year of the Woman” will remain as illusory as it has been for the past several decades. In 1992, a record 60 million women voted, and in doing so helped secure the largest percentage increase of women in the House and Senate in history. But the record turnout of women voters was not repeated in the next election, and the statistics have moved far too slowly ever since.
Yet there is a link between the presence of viable women candidates and the involvement of women in the political process. A study detailed in the Journal of Politics demonstrated that more women vote when there are competitive races involving women candidates.
Women candidates, however, deserve the same opportunity as their male competitors to run on the issues and to have their backgrounds vetted without the emergence of biased press coverage that diminishes their legitimate accomplishments. If we are going to describe the antique collection of the women running for office, then include a description of the male candidate’s home décor. If Nancy Pelosi must continually be described as Armani-clad and wearing Tahitian pearls, then the press might as well tell us who dresses all the other members of Congress and whether they wear Rolex watches.
Or, better yet, forget the clothing, the jewelry, and the weight. Instead, focus on what the candidates offer the voters, how they approach issues, how they would react in a crisis, and what they hope to achieve when in office.
Let’s take the measure of the men — and the women — in the ways that truly matter. Now that would be press coverage worth reading.
Lauren Stiller Rikleen is a lawyer and the executive director of the Bowditch Institute for Women’s Success and the author of “Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women’s Success in the Law.”