Commander in Chic

EMILY's List, the fundraising PAC for pro-choice Democratic women, turned 20 last month. Founded one year after NBC's Tom Brokaw described vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro as a "size 6" at the Democratic National Convention, the group has since helped to elect 80 female governors, senators and representatives, and hundreds of women to state offices.

Their anniversary comes at a time when America seems fascinated with the concept of female political leadership, from the fictional ("This fall, a woman will be president," proclaimed towering billboards publicizing Geena Davis's ratings-smash Commander in Chief) to the fantasy (pundits salivating about a potential Hillary Clinton/Condoleezza Rice horse race in 2008 on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, NBC's Meet the Press, and ABC's Good Morning America).

Two recent Gallup and Roper Public Affairs polls show overwhelming support for female politicians among the general public: between 79 and 81 percent of Americans say they would feel comfortable with a female president, and similar numbers believe a woman would handle homeland security and foreign policy issues as well as or better than a male president. So, if the public is ready for a female president, why is it that the closest a woman has come to the Oval Office is Geena Davis on a Hollywood backlot? And, for that matter, why are women still stuck with token representation in the Senate, the House, and the Supreme Court?

In part, this continued inequity can be traced to a media climate still mired in outmoded attitudes echoing Tom Brokaw, circa 1984. Women audacious enough to seek political power are routinely dogged by gender-specific coverage that focuses on their looks, fashion sense, familial relationships and other feminizing details that have nothing to do with their expertise. Which brings us to the failed Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers -- who, according to the Associated Press, bakes a mean sweet potato pie.

Well before Miers' withdrawal, a lengthy AP profile informed readers (often via quotes from relatives and colleagues), that Bush's embattled sycophant "likes to play tennis, run and take in a movie," is "not somebody who is a gossip," "always remembers everybody's birthday," and that "her royal blue suit shined with a brooch her mother gave her" when her nomination was announced in the Oval Office.

No news to date from the AP on what dish Bush's new nominee Samuel Alito might bring to a SCOTUS potluck, or whether Antonin Scalia's cufflinks carry sentimental value. The AP was hardly alone. The Los Angeles Times referred to Miers as Bush's "work wife," described her mother's recollection that she was "a blond-haired 'perfect angel'" as a child, and quoted her preacher as saying she is "a gracious, Christian lady" who embodies the word "meek" (apparently, he meant that as a compliment).

Meanwhile, in "The Eyes Have It," the Richmond, Va., Times Dispatch called for Miers to get a "makeover" because she "succumbed to the Whoopi Goldberg Eyebrow Theory: It's better not to have any." Tongue-in-cheek tone aside, there's nothing funny about statements such as "It's entirely possible that Miers figures it's more important to lawyer good than to look good. That would be wrong, of course. When the eyes of the public are upon you, nothing is more important than how you wield instruments of beauty. Well, nothing other than accessorizing. And maybe shoes."

But the top prize for misogynistic Miers mumblings goes to the San Diego Union Tribune, whose columnist (and former congressman) Lionel Van Deerlin wrote, "In judging persons for public office, there are certain routine tests... in assessing a feminine prospect, I have to wonder -- would I wish to be married to her?" It's difficult to imagine more chauvinistic and irrelevant criteria for vetting a candidate for the nation's highest court. Yet while the Beltway buzzed about Miers' political opinions and crony status, Van Deerlin labeled her unsuitable not because of her lack of judicial experience but because, as a workaholic, "she doesn't meet my exacting standard"... as a potential wife! "Can it be any wonder she's single?," he asked, "What relationship could flower with a woman who works from 4 a.m. to 10 at night?"

If Harriet were named Harold, it's likely the Union Tribune would have praised Miers' long hours as proof positive that Hard-Working Harry would make a dedicated jurist. Instead, we got a regressive screed about a professional woman doomed to a life of solitude because no man should want such an ambitious wife.

Nor did W do his nominee any favors when he called her a "pit bull in size 6 shoes" -- a phrase that quickly made its way into headlines. Oh, how that size 6 has haunted women leaders in the press, from Brokaw cutting Ferraro down to size in '84, to the day Condoleezza Rice became America's first African-American female national security adviser -- and a front page New York Times story reported that "her dress size is between a 6 and an 8." And earlier this year, after Rice happened to wear tall black leather boots, here's how the Washington Post described the single most influential woman in the current administration:

"...the mind searches for ways to put it all into context. It turns to fiction, to caricature. To shadowy daydreams. Dominatrix! It is as though sex and power can only co-exist in a fantasy. When a woman combines them in the real world, stubborn stereotypes have her power devolving into a form that is purely sexual."
Orwellian, isn't it? The Post brands the secretary of state a dominatrix, then feigns concern that sexualized stereotypes rob female politicians of their power... never acknowledging that their paper is a prime purveyor of these double-standard-laced stereotypes.

Don't let the examples of Miers and Rice fool you: Trivializing female leaders is a bipartisan media pastime. Take, for instance, the Washington Post style story about the hairstyles, housekeeping preferences and "hootchy shoes" of California Democrats Loretta and Linda Sanchez, the first Latina sisters to serve together in Congress. Or the Larry King Live debate about whether Hillary Clinton's "fat legs," "bottom heavy" figure, bad fashion sense and "bitchy" demeanor would torpedo her N.Y. senate bid.

This sort of media marginalization reinforces the regressive notion that women are more emotional, less knowledgeable, less qualified to lead -- and, by proxy, less electable -- than their male counterparts.

To be sure, media is only one major cause of women's underrepresentation in public office. Even if every major American media outlet devoted itself tomorrow to fair, ethical coverage of female leaders (and they should!), women might still be less inclined -- or less able -- to enter politics in the first place due to contributing factors that include persistent economic inequality; the fact that women still disproportionately shoulder child care and elder care responsibilities; and good old-fashioned stereotypes that can steer boys toward leadership and girls toward support roles.

Nevertheless, media have the power to encourage women to overcome such obstacles to leadership -- at the very least, they have the responsibility not to perpetuate those barriers. It's time to demand journalism that is respectful and informative, not insulting and frivolous. Harriet Miers' lack of judicial experience and her "best governor ever!" fawnings over Bush were more than fair game for critique; the way she chose to apply her makeup, and her single status, should be not have been up for review. Likewise, the secretary of state's war-intelligence failures -- not her boots and dress size -- should be the subject of journalistic scrutiny.

So, the next time you stumble across this kind of coverage, get out your poison pens and write those letters to your editors. Because if media coverage of female politicians doesn't catch up to public opinion, the possibility of a Clinton v. Rice presidential faceoff will remain as much a fantasy as Geena Davis's Commander In Chief.

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