Let’s Stop Critiquing the Fashion Sense of Women in Politics

On Turkey Day, not too long ago, Sasha and Malia Obama stood beside their father, the president of our nation, as the man pardoned a condemned turkey in one of the more bizarre traditions the country has accrued.

And also not long ago, former GOP staffer Elizabeth Lauten, since resigned, heavily criticized the young girls for, among other things, their taste in dress.

“Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar,” she said in a statement on her private Facebook page.

Which is more than a little ridiculous considering that Malia was wearing a sweater and Sasha a cardigan. But in backlash against Lauten’s petty offense, I found more pettiness.

“Lauten is prone to wearing large pearl necklaces, hoop earrings and unflattering dresses of bright hues and elephant prints (because she’s a Republican! Get it?). This is the type of woman who is probably under the impression that Lilly Pulitzer is haute couture and Maison Martin Margiela is a commander in the French army,” say Olivia Nuzzi, a reporter for The Daily Beast.

You would be remiss in thinking that Nuzzi is a fashion reporter, because she’s not. She covers, among other things, politics for the publication and is unfortunately not alone in conflating the two.

At a young age, before I understood what Hillary Clinton’s success in politics meant for women everywhere, I understood that her pantsuits were a common joke, making her off-putting, less feminine, and therefore more appropriate to one day hold office. When Wendy Davis filibustered in the Texas senate for 11 hours for female reproductive rights, the pink sneakers she wore made many a lede in many a publication nationwide. Sarah Palin’s look was described as “porn star” by one blogger during her time in the national spotlight.

Making an exception for the pope’s red slippers and the light tan Easter suit Obama brazenly wore when discussing U.S. military involvement in Syria, this is largely a female politician problem. The press and the public are notorious for judging women on their choice (and choices—this seems to be a running theme) of jacket, shoe and the like. Amanda Hess, at Slate, detailed how the press covers female fashion, focusing at length on high heels. In her piece, she mentions a Washington Post story that covered White House legal counsel Kathryn Ruemmler and deigned to mention her “stunning 4-inch bright pink stiletto spikes,” following up with a story on “A white house counsel known for her shoes.”

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girl in gray sweater and red and white plaid skirt standing on snow covered ground

I am so appreciative that The Washington Post, a reputable publication in every other sense, took the time to quote such blogger quips as “Just because you work for the DOJ doesn’t mean you have to shop at DSW” about a professional, intelligent, educated White House attorney.

Women receive special press attention for other aspects of their being as well. A 2013 study undertaken by Johanna Dunaway, an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Mass Communication of Louisiana State University, found that the newspaper coverage of political candidates differed by gender, and ultimately focused on personality traits more in women than in men. Dunaway’s team surveyed 9,725 newspaper articles that covered the 2006 and 2008 Senate and gubernatorial races and found that stories focused on character traits 9.4 percent of the time when female candidates were involved in contrast to the 6 percent when male candidates were involved.

This could infer something about the political fashion police, as humans—whether incorrectly or not—often intimate personality by appearance. Which kind of makes sense. When I get dressed, I wear a blazer to appear professional and an unprofessional dress to appear bar-ready (Sasha and Malia, take note). Fashion is the way we—men and women—express ourselves and that shouldn’t be suppressed. Rather, it shouldn’t factor in when discussing qualifications, political ideals, merit, intelligence and candidacy. It shouldn’t be factored in when mauling the First Children or in criticizing the mauler.

This is all to say, I’m all in for clothing and its place in our lives. Let’s just reserve that place for the fashion blogosphere and the shopping mall rather than the national one.

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