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5 Guidelines that Can Prevent Sexist Reporting on Women in Politics

A new guide reminds us that even when we don't mean to, we can judge and describe female candidates differently.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, left, and European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton give a press conference after a bilateral meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels. Clinton has said Pakistan's wealthy need to follow in the footsteps of the international community in helping the ravaged nation's longterm recovery.
Photo Credit: AFP - Mandel Ngan


Women running for office have it hard during the long campaign slog. Not only are they grilled on their positions and their personalities, but entire articles are devoted to millimeters of their cleavage, their shoe and sartorial choices, and whether they're neglecting their family duties to pursue politics. While too many stories also spend ink on horse-race speculation and the personal attributes of male candidates, the extra burden of such a focus inevitably falls on women in the spotlight--a reflection of a larger burden women often face in all careers.

Indeed, the scope of the problem goes far beyond women whose names are on the ballot--it faces all women involved in political and social activism. Witness the recent article  in the New York Times magazine about one of the radical leaders of the Chilean student movement: "Camila Vallejo, The World's Most Glamorous Revolutionary." The otherwise well-reported, in-depth and fascinating story by Francisco Goldman concludes its very first paragraph with an admirer of Vallejo saying, "she's hot;" shortly thereafter Goldman describes her "Botticelli" looks and her nose ring. This narrative about Vallejo is everywhere: a Newsweek story dubbed her more fit for the catwalks than the barricades. 

Readers, far from reeled in by this description of Vallejo's glamor, were none too amused. As one of the very first comments on the Times story noted, "It is essentially degrading...All of her capacities, intelligence, bravery, human qualities are undercut by his starting this off with her looks. Very, very poor journalism."

commenter added, "I can hardly imagine a cover story about a male political figure with a lead paragraph that ends with 'He's hot,' and that comments so extensively on his physical attributes."

While there's no question that Vallejo's looks and charisma are part of her political appeal, there's more going on here--specifically, the contextual acknowledgment of the double-standard, the idea that such appeal can be reflected back in misogynistic ways. In fact, the obsessive focus on Vallejo's external beauty may, even subconsciously, assume some sort of inherent contradiction between her looks and her firebrand radicalism, an assumption many pundits made about the young Gloria Steinem.

The commenters on the Times story caught onto something the production staff missed: journalists should do unto women in politics exactly as they would do unto men. If you're not going to call a male politician a pinup, then refrain from diving into that kind of language when describing his female counterpart.

Contrast the story of Vallejo's media narrative with the viral media sensation of the day: " Texts from Hillary," a new Tumblr devoted to images of Hillary Clinton sending texts juxtaposed with pictures of other celebrities texting and superimposed with fake headlines that make the Secretary of State look tough, competent and frankly, quite the badass. Instead of focusing on her hair, her weight, her pantsuits, as so many stories about Clinton have over the years, these humorous images of strength show what many people want from their media coverage of powerful women.

With a major election about to dominate the media landscape for months, media activists at the Women's Media Center, who have been pointing out sexism in electoral coverage through their " Name It. Change It" campaign for several years, decided to be proactive and give journalists a map to avoid such pitfalls.

The WMC  released its guide at the end of last month (PDF). Rachel Larris, who co-authored the guide, calls it an "educational tool to show everyone--because thanks to social media, everyone’s part of the discussion now--how to avoid injecting sexism into the discussion and how to recognize sexism in other peoples' coverage."

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