Powerful Women In Politics: A Beauty Catch-22

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Recently, I had the opportunity to cover the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Chicago. As a member of the media, I spent much of my day in the Media Room. Here, many of the conservative speakers gave statements to and answered questions from the press, in addition to speaking on the main stage. One of those speaking to us in the media room was Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. After speaking briefly, the Congresswoman opened up the floor for questions. One of the first questions was asked by a fellow female journalist. Her question: What do you consider the greatest challenge of being a woman in the political arena?

Naturally, as a writer for a female-focused website, I was intrigued. I turned on my camera’s recorder and eagerly anticipated her answer. The biggest challenge… Being taken seriously by the media? Balancing work and family life? Earning respect within the ‘good old boy’ network of politics? Nope. None of the above. Here is her answer to the question:

Looking good. That’s the main thing. Girls have to look good; their hair has to be right; their makeup has to be right and they have to have the whole outfit worked together or we hear about it. That’s probably the biggest challenge. Because a man can roll out of bed and be on TV in fifteen minutes; we just can’t do that. At least I can’t.

My picture of Bachmann in the CPAC Media Room

Big sigh. Really? Quite honestly my first reaction was one of supreme disappointment. As she continued to take questions and the focus shifted to the economy and foreign policy, part of my mind was still thinking over what she said. Later that night, after the conference, I shared my frustration with a male colleague. “How could she say that?” I asked. I felt let down. “Of all the challenges facing women in politics–particularly conservative women–how could she give such a shallow answer?” His response was not what I expected. “She’s in her mid-fifties. She’s been in politics for years. She is speaking from her personal experience. This has obviously been an issue for her through her career.”

As I thought more about it, I realized my journalist friend had a point. Outside politics, in the world of celebrity, there has long been contention that opportunities for quality film roles for older women are few and far between, unless you’re Meryl Streep. When a man like Alec Baldwin or George Clooney goes grey around the temples, it’s considered sexy. When a woman does the same, she’s “let herself go”. If this is true for women in Hollywood, could it also be true of women in politics?

In Michele Bachmann’s case, she has clearly been targeted by some in the media. When she visited the Iowa State Fair last year, she was one of the unfortunate politicians to have a suggestive picture taken while eating a corn dog. How does a sexual-innuendo-charged picture have anything to do with her political positions? It doesn’t. Not long after, Newsweek ran a very unflattering picture of Bachmann on their magazine’s cover, labeling her the “Queen of Rage”. Obviously, like all magazines, the editors had multiple cover photos from which to choose. Yet, they chose the one that was the least flattering and painted Bachmann in the most unattractive light possible, supporting their narrative that she was slightly unhinged.

Photo by Newsweek

Sadly, the stigma against women in politics is present across party lines. For years, Hillary Clinton has been mocked for varied ‘offenses’: her affinity for ‘frumpy’ pantsuits, her ‘shrill’ voice, her ‘cankles’. Since becoming Secretary of State, I thought perhaps she would be taken more seriously. However, just this week another article was written about her in the UK’s Guardian.   In a piece entitled, Hillary, You Won’t Make President Looking Like That, the author states, “Maybe Hillary will run for the presidency (in 2016), but Lord help her if she doesn’t sort her hair out.”

Photo courtesy of Foreign and Commonwealth Office

As a conservative, I may not always share Secretary Clinton’s beliefs or positions. However, I would never attack her or fault her for her appearance. Why should outward appearance trump personal convictions? If she were to run for President in 2016 I certainly wouldn’t dismiss her because of her hairstyle.

Clearly, women in politics are often judged harshly for not meeting some outward standard of beauty. Sadly, the reverse is also true. Apparently, a woman should not be frumpy, but she should also avoid being too attractive. We’ve seen this with former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin as far back as the 2008 election cycle. As John McCain’s running mate and a relative unknown, she was often described by TV hosts and radio personalities as “that hot chick from Alaska”. Late Night host David Letterman referred to her style as the “slutty flight attendant look”. When Palin was castigated for her new campaign wardrobe, female journalist Campbell Brown sprang to her defense, pointing out the male/female double standard.   The following year Newsweek featured a cover shot of Palin in skimpy running shorts. This photo was previously used for a running magazine feature, where the image was contextually appropriate, but it was not exactly a professional image to use for a political story.

Photo by Newsweek

Despite my initial disappointment, I am coming to understand what Congresswoman Bachmann was feeling when she answered that question at CPAC. Women in politics–conservative and liberal alike–are intelligent, opinionated, and passionate. Many have brilliant ideas and plans for our nation that they are eager to express. Unfortunately, all too often, these women’s ideas are judged without ever really being heard, based solely upon how they have been “put together”. If they’re too frumpy, they’re out of touch with today’s issues. If they’re too attractive, they can’t possibly know anything about politics. Yet women in political power positions are often pushed harder to maintain their image than they are to express their ideas. As women, we must come together to support other women based upon the content of their character, not the length of their hemline.

**You can hear Congresswoman Bachmann answer this question and others: