Is it Sexist to Talk About Female Politicians’ Clothes?

I was eight years old when Sarah Palin became one of the most famous women in the world. As John McCain’s 2008 vice presidential running mate, she was thrust into the national spotlight with little preparation and even less polish. Pundits and media personalities heavily criticized Palin. Some of these critiques were entirely fitting of a vice-presidential candidate who appeared to have a subpar grasp of major issues (check out her iconic Katie Couric interview here), but others were thinly veiled sexism. Her looks were picked over and discussed constantly. Some of these sexist remarks were disguised as compliments: “MILF,” “pretty,” “sexy.”

Now, over a decade after Sarah Palin’s spectacular rise and fall (punctuated by a stint on Dancing with the Stars), we can evaluate the role of sexism in her and many other female politicians’ campaigns. Although Sarah Palin herself isn’t exactly a poster child of female empowerment, it’s worth discussing how women are covered as candidates in the media. Misogyny and sexism are clearly alive and well in the media and politics. And fashion is one of the most significant ways women have been kept in line throughout the centuries: organ-compressing corsets made women faint, massive hoop skirts limited their mobility, high heels still cause long-term damage. Women had to literally protest to be able to wear pants to ride bikes.

Even powerful women aren’t granted an exception to the stifling rules of beauty and attractiveness, and powerful men have weaponized these rules to shape our perceptions of women in the public. First ladies are often remembered only for their stylish clothes instead of their contributions to society. If a congresswoman has perfect makeup and expensive clothes, she’s frivolous and out of touch. If she wears conservative pantsuits and no makeup, she’s boring, unattractive and emasculating.

These rules make it almost impossible to be taken seriously as a woman in politics. The rules of the House of Representatives forbid women from wearing sleeveless dresses or open-toed shoes (yes, these rules were written by men). This is where my question becomes relevant: is it sexist talk about female politicians’ clothes?

Times have changed drastically since women entered politics. We live in an extremely image-conscious and visual society that values theatrics, aesthetics and meme-ability, and public figures know this. Think Nancy Pelosi wearing pink power-suits in the most female Congress in history or the Democratic Women’s Caucus wearing all white to the State of the Union in an homage to the suffragettes. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used social media to explain her bright red lips and big gold hoops, a tribute to her Bronx Latina roots. Even Sarah Palin’s “look” was central to her political persona as a Middle America soccer mom with big teased hair and feminine skirts.

However, even as some savvy women have figured out how to use patriarchal beauty standards to their advantage, many women in politics refuse to participate in them--and are roundly condemned for it. Hillary Clinton’s pantsuit uniform was seen as unfeminine and technocratic. Even when she was Secretary of State, her bare face was considered one of the top threats to U.S. global interests (I’m only half kidding).

It’s time we stop assuming that every woman in politics is sending us subliminal messages through her choice of clothing. Sometimes, female politicians wear things because it’s what makes them feel comfortable, professional or just because they want to. We don’t write panicked headlines every time a male politician wears the obligatory flag pin or ill-fitting suit. In our personal lives, we all have female friends with varying approaches to beauty and style. Some are minimalist Glossier girls, some do a glitter eye and perfectly curated outfit every day and still others couldn’t care less.

We should afford the same level of nuance and personal preference to women in public life. As the 2020 campaigns heat up and several women have declared themselves candidates for president, let’s forgo the tired articles talking about how those women dress on a day-to-day basis as they do the unbelievably tough job of campaigning around the country and save the style articles for the genuine statement moments.

There is a clear difference between female politicians who use style and clothes as a type of political message and those who simply exist in the world as women who have to wear clothes to work every day like the rest of us. A purposeful bright red lip can be bold statement about Latina empowerment among a sea of white men. A hot pink suit can evoke femininity and power. A brightly-colored hijab can be a political statement all on its own.

But sometimes, clothes are just that: clothes that exist to cover our bodies. If Kirsten Gillibrand or Elizabeth Warren want to give interviews about their outfits, then they have that prerogative. But for now, let’s save the panic for when Mitch McConnell shows up to work in a hot pink suit and matching stilettos.