Women politicians, coated with scorn

One of our favourite bloggers, Imogen Lamport of Inside Out Style, posted on her comments in the Australian press on Australian PM Juila Gillard's image.

The Australian press pitched a fit about the new PM's ikat-print coat.

Gillard seems to have a figure like Cherie Blair's: average-width shoulders atop a generous bust. Fitting that is a challenge. But the advice to tone down the pattern, spend more on clothes and (not necessarily from Imogen) dress more "appropriately" reminds me of how much hostility women in politics draw–and the subtext of running these "advice" features.

Hillary: More coat criticism

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wore a pattern-lined coat to Tokyo last winter and the admiration from women–who wanted that very coat–drowned out the critics. I suspect her classic wrap was custom-lined in Japanese fabric.

Not s
o many bouquets when she landed in Kabul in what the press called "a hippie coat". Hey, this is an Afghan coat worn to give recognition to women of that country. So much for diplomacy and for any kind of eye from journalists, who would not know an ethnic piece if it bit them.

Gillard was advised not to wear black because it is "ageing". (Cue Chanel, rolling in her grave.)

But (presumably before receiving this advice) she chose black for a Press Gallery Ball. Julia Gillard, 50 this fall, looked ravishing.

Isn't the observation (made for any women in anything but corporate drag) that "her appearance detracts from her message" true for any of us seen by another? But give her a break, she wasn't dressed like Lady Gaga.

Just en
ding her first week in office, Australia's first female PM may not have anticipated what an easy target her jacket would be. Gillard's spokesman said, "We'll let others comment about whether or not they like her choices."

Or, excuse me, somebody has a country to run.

Can image consultants help women in the public eye?

Absolutely, just as they can assist any woman coping with a changing body, little time to select a wardrobe and a tight budget. Imogen is forthright, generous with her advice and her before-and-after shots attest to her talent. If elected, I'd hire her in a second, clothing allowance or not.

A woman politician appearing in anything other than the most conservative attire will draw criticism, her spending judged excessive (Cristina Kirchner) or too little (Gillard).

Sniping at a woman's clothes or body is an obvious and cheap way of undermining her power. Politics has been called "show business for ugly people" but women are expected to serve while looking only and entirely chic.


Unknown said…
Wait, what's wrong with that ikat coat? It looks pretty pastel and muted, at least in that picture.

And even pure corporate drag doesn't necessarily work for women. How many times did people make snarky comments about Hillary Clinton's pantsuits?
Duchesse said…
Gwen: If the paper or certain writers don't support a woman's party or policies, or do not think women have any place in political life, they will attack her for being too feminine, too masculine, having bad legs, the wrong hairstyle- you name it. Hillary Clinton got all this. Imogen does not think it's misanthropic, and I do.
mette said…
I think that Hillary Clinton ( with/without help ) looks very ok these days. Australia´s PM has been, for the rest of the world, unknown, so I´m sure, she will find her style in time. Here in Finland, judging how our female President dresses, is done with a low profile. We too now have a new, young woman PM. Over here, it is considered bad-mannered to say out loud what you see, feel or think.
Susan B said…
Agreed that this kind of criticism directed at women in politics (or business) is a way to deflect from and diminish their power. Many disagree with me, but I think sexism/misogyny is still alive and well though usually kept under wraps. This is one area where the slip of sexism shows.
NancyDaQ said…
I realize this is going to come across wrong, but that ikat coat is horrible. It looks like something from an outlet store. I like the last photo for work attire--true, it's a uniform but it focuses attention on the business at hand.

I actually like both of the Hillary examples that Pseu posted. They were appropriate to each occasion and better than the pastel pantsuits she wore while campaigning.

Yes, there is a sexist element to comments on how women leaders dress, but I don't think all of it is meant to be sexist. Face it, women in leadership roles are relatively new in government and business, so there's less of an accepted uniform than there is for men.
Northmoon said…
Like De Pesu, I think misogyny is alive and well, just more subtle than it used to be. One of the ways it shows is the way news media feels free to criticise the dress of women in important positions in ways they never would if she was a man. As Metscan says, very often it's rude, and distracts everyone from her accomplishments.

While I have to agree with Imogen's comments about the style (mistakes) of the new Austrailian Prime Minister, I wish she could have sent her a private message, not gone public with her critique.
Belle de Ville said…
While I don't approve of the outrageous scrutiny of the clothes of women politicians in general, I do believe that a Head of State has a responsibility to dress in appropriate attire. They were elected (hired) to not only run the country, but to represent the country and that's where their appearance comes into play.
Still the sexism is obvious in that the younger and the more attractive the female politician, the more her mode of dress is commented on. No one ever comments on Angela Merkel's outfits.
Duchesse said…
metscan: Ms Kiviniemi looks elegant (and even wears fur!). I have known some outspoken Finns but maybe that's why they emigrated :)

Pseu: I don't think sexism is dead, it's not even on life support. I recently asked a man how far women could get in banking in his country. "Quite far enough", he replied.

nanflan: Guess it depends on what you define as "new" but in the US women have served in Congress since 1971 and in the Senate since 1781 (but in number since 1922). whether one likes her coat or not, I wonder if a male PM would be ridiculed for his jacket.

Northmoon: I think this type of criticism is sometimes sexist and may be driven by dislike for party- so any attempt is made to disparge its representative. I read some vicious comments about Michelle Obama's clothes and body that made no sense to me till I read further comments on that blog about the author's political affiliation.
Duchesse said…
Belle: Oh, Merkel has had her detractors, for everything from wearing "boring" suits to "baggy pants" (while on vacation). When she attended the opera in décolléte, which was fairly modest (and also photoshopped to look less so)- plenty of comments.
I never hear critics slam what the male political figures are wearing....I am so glad not to be in their shoes I'd be a laughing stock!
I think Hilary looks very appropriate...the Queen dresses in a manner fittting the culture when visiting foreign countries.
I never hear critics slam what the male political figures are wearing....I am so glad not to be in their shoes I'd be a laughing stock!
I think Hilary looks very appropriate...the Queen dresses in a manner fittting the culture when visiting foreign countries.
Duchesse said…
hostess: I'm going to guess Hillary has had a lot of advice and experience; she jokes about her "predictable pantsuits". BTW I am commenting on your blog but the posts are not showing up.
Oops, I'd started writing in French!

There had been far more misogyinistic criticisms of PM Gillard than her dress sense - some have actually ventured to ask if she could understand "Australia's families" as she was "barren" (childless or childfree - would like to find a neutral term). Women here - with a similar parliamentary system - were deeply shocked.

I read German, and Merkel gets a lot of flack. Actually she is a person who knows she is absolutely uninterested in fashion (like many scientists, male and female, though there are some geek-exceptions who peruse these blogs). She is intelligent enough to listen to her image consultants.

A woman as conventionally pretty as Ségolène Royal got it too, and of course her rival Martine Aubry gets it in the neck for being a slightly-plump, middle-aged Française moyenne.

Here opposition leader Pauline Marois comes under fire for looking like "une dame bourgeoise".

I can't comment on Imogen's blog any more (must see how I can get a second Google ID - I do have a google account but it is in my real name, for business) but here many men wear black suits as well. It is much colder here, and we have a lot of French cultural influence - our clothing style lies somewhere between francophone Europe and (English-speaking) Northeastern North America.

I don't seen how a black suit can be ageing as it is usually worn with a white or other lighter or brighter-coloured shirt or blouse, and women can wear a beautiful scarf - men can wear a beautiful tie too, but it is less visible. And do we necessarily want teenagers leading our governments?
Duchesse said…
lagatta: I'd heard that "barren" comment too and it made my jaw drop. re the "black is ageing" saw, I perceive such a fear of ageing, which is a screen for fear of death. Why do people expect politicians to look like movie stars and make mean comments if they don't?
LPC said…
Duchesse, I think part of what's going on is that women at the top, of political or corporate structures, in the West, is still a fairly new phenomenon. So there is no consensus. For men the big controversy is whether the tie is blue or red. The spectrum of power wear for women range from Anna Wintour to Meg Whitman to Madeline Albright to Indira Gandhi. Tough to settle on a uniform, so what's worn is often subject to debate.

Oh, and sexism, of course.
M said…
I'm not as quick to label someone as sexist until we know who "they" are. Are we to assume that all the comments referenced in your post are from men? Why? It's been my observation that some of the most uncivil commentary on the appearance of female politicians has been from other women. They self-rightously denounce sexism in men, but then have no qualms about making tawdry comments themselves if they don't like that person's politics. Obviously, I haven't done a study on this, but my guess is that women may be the worst offenders.
LaurieAnn said…
I don't like all the criticism of the clothing worn by women in politics either. It's as if women still need to be "pleasers" even in elected office. Some women do have easier bodies to clothe than others. It's difficult for any woman to be perfectly attired and then to be elected leader on top of that? I have been critical of certain women in US. politics, but you can be sure it's because of their publicly espoused political views and not their clothing.
Toby Wollin said…
Why any woman, no matter how clever, smart, or charismatic would want to seek publicly elected office these days is totally beyond me. The amount of junk that is thrown at any woman who runs is truly phenomenal. Too feminine or not feminine enough. Good ankles or Hillary Clinton? Hair styles. Nancy Pelosi's red suit (the fact that she's the most powerful elected female politician in the country is sort of forgotten, but they always get in about her clothing and the fact that she's a grandmother. It might be 2010, but for women, we might as well all be named Amelia Bloomer.
M, women are fully capable of making sexist comments and far worse. One of the harshest forms of sexist oppression still wipespread in our times, female genital mutilation, is almost always perpetrated by older female relatives who want to make girls marriageable.

There are many less horrific examples, in our "own" western societies. Speaking out against sexism doesn't mean hating men.

The "barren" comment had me gobsmacked. Google gillard barren for lots more.
Duchesse said…
LPC: Dark skirted suits, at least in conservative businesses and politics: Few critics get exercised about those.

M: The writer signed the piece and the consultants are named, or am I taking "who they are" too literally? Sexism (discrimination based on gender) can apply to both sexes.

LaurieAnn: Sometimes I wish all elected officials wore uniforms, as airline pilots or some health care professionals do. Just remove the issue.

Toby: I agree, and admit I read every single word about Pelosi's pearls. So I am a hypocrite!
M said…
The definition of sexism is discrimination or abusive behavior towards the opposite sex so it's not sexism when woman verbally ridicule other women. It may be rude and offensive but it's not sexism.
Susan B said…
From Merriam-Webster dictionary:

Main Entry: sex·ism
Pronunciation: \ˈsek-ˌsi-zəm\
Function: noun
Etymology: 1sex + -ism (as in racism)
Date: 1968
1 : prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially : discrimination against women
2 : behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex

— sex·ist \ˈsek-sist\ adjective or noun

M, I've found that women can certainly hold sexist attitudes.
M said…
Your last sentence is my point exactly. As I said, women are often harder on other women than men are.
mette said…
Duchesse: I´m surprised, that you are aware of our Mari Kiviniemi, PM ! Shows, that you are keeping your eyes and ears open : )
Rubiatonta said…
It's interesting that here in Spain, the (reputedly) most macho of countries, there are lots of high-ranking female politicians in all parties (the Socialist government has 9 women out of 17 ministers).

These women are of all ages, and have a wide range of styles -- and I can't remember a single occasion when what they were wearing was commented on.

People were surprised at Carme Chacon, minister of defense, being 7 mos. pregnant when appointed, but with Spain's 16 weeks of paid maternity leave, they were largely concerned about how quickly she'd get back to work.

Consult Google Images for Carme Chacon, Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, Dolores de Cospedal, and Esperanza Aguirre -- it's an interesting panorama!
Duchesse said…
M: The definition supplied by Pseu is the one I stand by. Merrian-Webster is an acknowledged standard for North American English.

When women discriminate against other women based on their gender, it is sexism. Ridiculing someone is not necessarily sexist, just mean-spiritied- but when the ridicule is based on gender, it's sexist.

metscan: And she is the second one in this decades, isn't she?

rubiatonta: That was fun! What impressed me was how young two of the women re and I was impressed that they hold these positions. 16 weeks is a short leave here, where women are given unemployment benefits for a year after birth.
M said…
Then how do you square that with some of the vicious comments I've heard women make about other women while they simultaneously decry sexism? Isn't there a bit of hypocrisy at work here?
Duchesse said…
M: I'd ask them that. We can all be insconsistent, sometimes deliberately and sometimes unthinkingly.
M said…
That's why name-calling is so dangerous.
Duchesse said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Duchesse said…
M: Some name-calling includes sexism, some does not, but is still a form of violence through language, which is why so many schools have language rules. I remember when my sons were eight or nine, they heard "bitch" and "ho" so commonly used in music but were unaware of the implications. For a very brief time they were imitating what they heard, with no idea of the implication.
M said…
Terrible how cruel epithets are carelessly thrown around like that but a good example of what I'm saying. Casually calling someone a sexist b/c they have critized someone's clothes is no different. It's just a grown up version. Hearing the word sexism used so flippantly renders the word almost meaningless. BTW, I've enjoyed this discussion. Thank you for providing a forum for all our opinions. I love your blog & read it regularly & I do love a good debate!
Rubiatonta said…
I should clarify on maternity leave here in Spain - it's 16 weeks at 100% salary, but it's almost 6 years (!) in total, second only to France in total parental leave.

I have friends who went back to jobs after two or three years, but it's hard to imagine how it would work after six!
Duchesse said…
rubiatontoa; Thanks, was not aware it was so generous. Even 2 years here would be exceptional. I saw a study recently (probably re North American) saying that woman lost 5% of her earning power per year for every year she stayed out of the job. Of course this is only one consideration.
Indeed, the Nordic countries http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nordic_countries are remarkable in terms of women's participation in the political process. I checked for the most inclusive term - as Finland of course is not in the same language family (North Germanic) as Denmark, Sweden and Norway, and Iceland outside Europe).

Rubiatonta, viewed from abroad, the current Spanish government seems to have put a great emphasis on the fight against violence against women in the family and elsewhere, and on women's place in society. But I also understand the perverse nature of some seemingly positive measures for women, as in Italy for a long time the pensionable age for women was 50. For women in academic and professional circles, this could be another version of the glass ceiling. More compassionate compensation for workers who are injured or exhausted, of either sex, might well be a fairer and better solution.

Though perhaps we are straying too far from the original topic. How women have to dress and present themselves is such a minefield.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: The prediction among many economists is that pensions and retirement age will change in both Europe and NA- but I have heard hardly any consideration of altering parental leave benefits.
M said…
Economists are predicting changes b/c many European nation's debt to GDP ratio is enormous. Many of these social programs are unsustainable.
mette said…
Duchesse: Yes, Anneli Jätteenmäki was the forst ever, but was forced to resign because of the fax mess. I followed the first woman PM closer, as there was so much writing at that time. Mari Kiviniemi has been in politics long too, but is still a total stranger for me.
mette said…
Argh, first, not forst, sorry.
NancyDaQ said…
Duchesse, yes I think that male politicians are criticized on appearance. How often do you hear about Boehner and Crist and their burnt orange tans, for example?

The current governor of my state (Bill Richardson), received quite a bit of press when he grew a beard after withdrawing from the Democratic Primary. The previous governor always got press for his Levi's.

And no politician, male or female, should ever wear a flight suit (W and Dukakis).

Is this a good thing? Not really. But women aren't the only politicians who receive attention for appearance.

I get your point about women serving in Congress since the 1970s but it's only recently that women have been considered serious contenders for leadership positions such as President and Speaker of the House. That's a huge leap in authority.
Duchesse said…
Nancy: When you compare column inches (let alone tabloid covers, US and People articles etc.) women politicians receive far more coverage concerning their hair and attire- and in more major publications- than men. "Only recently considered for serious positions"? I thought just getting elected was an achievement.

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