The Politics of Hair

A woman's hair is not a constant. It's not intended to be. For proof, look no further than the multitude of semi-permanent hair color, perms and straightening treatments, and the oh-so-cute salon shampoo boys.

Some breeds of women -- i.e. models -- have been known to change their hair from one page of Vogue to the next. Now it's Bride-of-Frankenstein frizzy, now it's stick straight. With others -- Farrah Fawcett, Jennifer Aniston and similar Hollywood types -- fans expect trend-setting hair. (Remember The Rachel?) It's part of their job descriptions. Even if adoring fans hate the 'do -- think Kerry Russell's brush with baldness -- we expect change. We expect high-profile women to remain au courant.

There is one iron-clad exception to this rule: Women in politics. Or women with husbands in politics. Run for public office and kiss goodbye the days of changing hairstyles every six weeks. We the public feel we own female politicians' hair; bad perms, bad roots, and all. Many politicians and First Ladies take the easy route, and don't change their hairstyle at all while in public office, or in the public eye. Think Madeline Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and any First Lady up though Barbara Bush. US Senator Dianne Feinstein -- who was also the first woman on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the first female mayor of San Francisco and the first woman elected Senator of California -- has worn the same hair cut and color for more than 30 years. Stylish, it ain't.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), on the other hand, who has been called "stylish" by Time Magazine, a "babe, and a "looker" by the White House Project, became head of the Big Dem Boss, cut off her bobbed hair and experienced a mild media-induced backlash.

On the other end of the spectrum, there's Hillary Clinton, the spokesmodel if you will for feisty politics and unabashed haircuts. During the Clinton years, mocking Hil's hair because a national pastime, and the stuff mean-spirited greeting cards were made of. A recent Time Magazine cover story, featuring an excerpt of Sen. Clinton's memoir, actually included a photo spread charting the evolution of her hair.

While male politicos don't wear the spiky faux hawks and bleached hair of the hipster generation, even Al Gore experienced some seedling resentment when he went from clean-shaven to bearded all in the course of a vacation abroad. Pundits said he looked too edgy, too brash, and, dare we say it, too European.

No one knows the politics of hair better than Karin Strasser Kauffman, a former Monterey, Calif. county supervisor who also ran for a seat in the state Assembly in '96.

We meet at a Carmel café. She's sitting outside, eating a cobb salad and sipping a glass of Chardonnay. She gives me a puzzled look as I approach the table. I assume it's the fishnet stockings. Wrong. It's my hair.

"I wasn't sure it was you," she says. "Wasn't your hair red last time I saw you?"

It was red, but that was over a year ago. Last time she saw me; it was platinum on top, almost black underneath. Now it's dark brown.

"You know," Strasser Kauffman says, "when you're elected to public office, you can't change your hair."

Isn't that as bad as dying a slow and painful death?

"It's not worth losing votes over," she says.

During her 10 years on the campaign trail, and in office, Strasser Kauffman describes her hair as "medium brown, medium length. A sophisticated bob. No bangs." She permed it to keep its height and body and she never changed her hair color. But on occasion, she'd grow longer pieces in front, or she'd flip it up, instead of under. And then the backlash -- from both women and men -- would begin.

"I'd change the style very minimally," she says. "And it was always, 'Oh, you changed your hair.'" She wrinkles her nose and curls her lip. "It was always implied, what else are you changing? Your politics? You are supposed to stay steady, stay the course, stay just as we elected you."

And today? She wears her hair short and brown, with chunky blond highlights -- and she relishes change.

Why all the fuss over female politicians' hairdos? Maybe we childlike citizens look to our elected officials as surrogate parents -- protectors who will shield us from the dangers and uncertainties in the world. If our politicians change, how can we trust anything to remain constant?

Or perhaps we associate changing hair with controversy. Compare First Ladies Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush. Clinton didn't play the traditional first-lady role. She supported her man, but she also pushed her own political agenda and campaigned for sweeping health care reforms. Laura Bush, on the other hand, is foremost a mother and wife. While Hillary set forth to overhaul the health care system in the US, Laura remains focused on literacy and education. It doesn't get more motherhood and apple pie than that.

"Nobody's against literacy," says Strasser Kauffman. "But if she suddenly tackles defense contracts or the energy policy, she's been seen in a different way."

In '04, things could get interesting. It's too bad that Carol Moseley Braun doesn't stand a chance. Her hair's cropped close to her head, it's not typically feminine, and it's the ultimate no-nonsense cut. It would be interesting to see how the public would react.

We're left only with the potential First Ladies.

Teresa Heinz Kerry, called "opinionated" by her friends and a "loose cannon" by her foes, doesn't look likely to conform to a traditional First Lady role. She's smart. She's fashionable. She's got opinions of her own and she's not afraid to share them. And she has fabulous curly hair. "This is hardly the first lady's hairdo," she recently told Elle.

Elizabeth Edwards plays it safer than Teresa Heinz Kerry. Edwards' hair looks sensible and stylish, but in a soccer mom kind of way. She's an attorney and her cause is kids.

The Boston Globe, in detailing Dr. Judith Steinberg Dean's dark hair and "simple skirt and sweater," calls her the "least packaged" of the candidates' wives, which translates to no sense of style. "I'm not a fashion plate," she admits.

Poor Gert Clark doesn't stand a chance. The General's wife's hair would undoubtedly be overshadowed by her husband's shock of white hair and high-voltage smile.

Or perhaps, by Election 2004, we will have evolved, moved from the flip to the shag, if you will. Maybe we will stop scrutinizing female politicians' 'dos and start asking the important, tough questions of men in public office: Toupee? Or not toupee?

Jessica Lyons lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., and is a staff writer for Monterey County Coast Weekly.

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