WIMN’s Voices: A Group Blog on Women, Media, AND…

Echidne of the Snakes

Echidne of the snakes is a pseudonym for an economist who specializes in applied microeconomics, including the study of the economic role of women.

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Echidne of the Snakes's Blog Introduction

Women, Media, AND... Electoral Politics

Once upon a time women who ran for a political office had a tough time of being heard or being taken seriously by the media, and when they did get coverage it often consisted of analyzing their looks, their children, their husbands or their personality. No, really, this is what used to happen. And sometimes when these women spoke assertively they were interpreted as being overly aggressive, and sometimes if they spoke calmly and positively they were interpreted as being overly compromising and weak. Yes, this really did take place. It was even quite common to see someone in the media ask whether the time is yet ripe for a woman to lead this country!

Aren’t you glad you don’t live in that time but in one where an actress can play a president on television? Surely the media no longer spends much time on discussing female politicians’ clothing and hair? Here is a little quiz for you: Guess the publication year of each of the following quotes:

- "Her cascade of auburn hair did a lazy Veronica Lake dip over one eye. Her lips were overdrawn with berry-red lipstick--the creamy sort that smears all over a coffee cup and leaves smudges on shirt collars. Her skin had been plastered and powered to the texture of pre-war walls in need of a skim coat. And her eyes, rimmed in liner and frosted with blue shadow, bore the telltale homogenous spikes of false eyelashes."

-"It was something about the hair. Something more swept-up, shellacked. And the lipstick, more coral than we recall, and more carefully applied. And the dress. Does she usually wear dresses like that?"

- “As Rice walked out to greet the troops, the coat blew open in a rather swashbuckling way to reveal the top of a pair of knee-high boots. The boots had a high, slender heel that is not particularly practical. But it is a popular silhouette because it tends to elongate and flatter the leg. In short, the boots are sexy.

…Rice's coat and boots speak of sex and power -- such a volatile combination, and one that in political circles rarely leads to anything but scandal. When looking at the image of Rice in Wiesbaden, 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."

The correct answers are 2000 (Robin Givhan in Washington Post, 11/18/2000 on the then Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris), 2001 (Joanna Weiss in Boston Globe, 10/4/2001 discussing a television address by the then Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift) and 2005 (Robin Givhan in Washington Post, 2/24/2005 on U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice).

But, at least we are past the era when a woman politician’s children and husband feature heavily in determining her competency, aren’t we?

Well, sort of. A recent USA Today article by Jill Lawrence supposedly compares and contrasts the actions of two governors: Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana, a woman, and Haley Barbour of Mississippi, a man, in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. The article describes Blanco in these terms:

“Blanco, 62, a Democrat from Port Iberia, raised six children and honed her political skills going door to door in Cajun country. Ever since New Orleans was overtaken by floodwaters, the soft-spoken governor has faced stinging criticism."

..."Blanco came to her job without Giuliani's law enforcement background or Barbour's deep knowledge of national politics and government. A stay-at-home mom for 14 years, she was the first woman on the state's Public Service Commission and, in 2003, the first woman elected governor of Louisiana."

Barbour, in contrast, is described like this:

"Barbour, 57, took a 20-year detour to Washington, where he developed close ties to President Bush and other important Republicans as a White House political director, national party chairman and high-powered lobbyist."

..."Upbeat and good-natured, Barbour also has refused to express much frustration with a federal relief operation even Bush acknowledged was flawed. He repeatedly says the federal government has been "a good partner."

Nowhere do we learn how many children Barbour has or how he solved the question of their care.

Even some seemingly innocent questions the media pose can bias the public against women running for an elected office. For example, questioning the candidate's viability ("Are we ready for a woman president?") is more common in articles about women politicians and may have the effect of seeding doubts in the voters' minds (Kahn, Kim, 1996, The Political Consequences of Being A Woman). Nobody wants to back an unviable candidate, after all.

The grim tale I opened with isn't a fairy tale, after all, and probably not even a pretty tale. Is the media a mirror which reflects back our own prejudices about women in politics or is it more like the looking glass that changed the behavior of the Evil Queen in Snow White, a force that shapes those prejudices and misdirects our attention away from the messages of women running for a political office? And, in any case, what are we to do about all this? Having more women in the media may not help, for reasons which are complicated – note that every one of the above quotes was written by a female journalist.

Then there are the subtler stories the media can tell us about political candidates by choosing the words they use (Gidengil, Elisabeth and Joanna Everitt, 2003, "Talking Tough: Gender and Reported Speech in Campaign News Coverage", Political Communication, 20: 209-232). Political writing teems with military and sports terms, all congruent with the traditional view of politics as a man's world. Does this make it harder for women to be taken seriously? Should women who run for office imitate Xena, the Warrior Princess, or would this create even more clashes of stereotypes?

So many possible plots for women seeking an elected office. Will these candidates' messages be covered and how fairly? Will we learn more than we wish to know about husbands, children or hairstyles? Will we be taught to doubt the viability of female politicians or to fear their excessive gentleness or stridency? Are the endings going to be happy? These are some of the things I will write about while following the real-world adventures of women candidates. I can't promise that we will all live happily forever, but the story should be riveting.

Echidne of the Snakes's Biography

Echidne of the snakes is a pseudonym for an economist who specializes in applied microeconomics, including the study of the economic role of women. Her blog, also called Echidne of the snakes, is a feminist take on politics and life. It has received several accolades in the world of blogs, and Katha Pollitt, The Nation columnist, is a regular reader.

As befits a minor goddess, Echidne grew up in Europe but now makes her home in Snakepit Inc., somewhere in the United States of America.

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