Let’s talk about the way we talk about women

Hillary Clinton being the best secretary of state ever.

Hillary Clinton being the best secretary of state ever.

Jims Porter

SONY DSCA few weeks back, I was involved in a conversation about the representation of women in American politics. As the discussion progressed, Hillary Clinton naturally entered the conversation, and I was surprised when someone made a comment that went something like this:

“I never used to have a problem with her, but lately she has really let her looks go.”

I’ll preface by admitting that I am an unabashed Hillary #fangirl.

I believe she was a fantastic first lady during her husband’s governorship in Arkansas, where she battled education reform in a state with historically low levels of performance. Her interest in public policy continued during her time in the White House, where she advocated for national healthcare reform. When confronted with a public spectacle of deeply personal relationship issues, she handled them with grace and elegance.

Her public service continued after she left the White House, when she served as the first female senator from New York, as well as secretary of state. In that position, she traveled to 112 countries, more than any of her predecessors, making her one of the most influential secretaries of state in U.S. history.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I’m not writing this with the intent of touting Ms. Clinton’s accomplishments, or even to defend her from the comment about her looks. Had the person I was in conversation with attacked her policies or stance on a certain issue, perhaps I would be writing in defense of her policies. Their attack, however, was not directed at her politics, but her appearance.

Hillary Clinton being the best secretary of state ever.
Hillary Clinton being the best secretary of state ever.

I was initially genuinely surprised by what I considered to be an incredibly careless and sexist remark. After all, it doesn’t require a great deal of intellect to know that a woman’s abilities are not determined by her appearance.

But then I started to think about the seemingly endless list of etymological snafus about women in politics: A Fox news commentator referring to Texas Sen. Wendy Davis (D) as the “Abortion Barbie;” accusations that Nancy Pelosi, former Speaker of the House, has undergone numerous plastic surgeries; the left’s criticism of Sarah Palin’s $150,000 wardrobe budget during the 2008 presidential election; the results rendered by a Google search of “Janet Reno.”

The list goes on and on, and I believe we are long overdue to start paying more attention to the words we use and the way we talk about female politicians.

Compared to other democracies, America does not rank well in terms of the representation of women in elected office. This is not surprising considering the scrutiny these women endure.

While the media examines their male counterparts’ proposals for health care, immigration and economic reform, women are more likely to be seen in the media for a change in hairstyle than their actual policies.

This is not only unfair, but dangerous, as studies have found that commenting on female politicians’ appearance, even in a positive way, trivializes their candidacy. It decreases their credibility with voters and damages their ability to get elected.

The problem with the way we talk about women extends beyond their appearance to their characters, as well. The media tends to focus more on women’s character traits than it does males, but even in comparing the two, women tend to get the short end of the stick.

An assertive male politician is seen as a leader with charisma, while women with the same characteristics are labeled as ruthless and overbearing. Why is it that the characteristics we see as positive in male politicians are viewed so negatively in women?

Watching your words can be difficult. I write these words with a twinge of hypocrisy, as I recall a remark I made in passing during the 2008 presidential election. A friend of mine was talking about the reasons he supported Sarah Palin, to which I replied something to the effect of:

“Sarah Palin is beautiful, but she should be a Land’s End model, not the vice president of the United States.”

I doubt that my friend remembers my jab at Palin, but I do, and I still feel guilty about it. Not because I’ve had a change of heart and wish she had been elected, but because I had ample verbal artillery to explain why I didn’t support Palin, but was too lazy to use it. I forfeited the opportunity to argue the problems with her policies for a cheap shot at her appearance.

And for that, I am sorry.

I believe the words of Hillary Clinton when she said that “Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world.” I think it’s time we start treating them as such.

With 2014 being an election year and a number of female politicians seeking a spot on the ballots, the issue of how we talk about women in politics will certainly continue to resurface. With the political debates that lie ahead, I hope each of us will remember the importance of thinking before we speak, and considering the meaning behind our words.