There’s a difference between liking Wendy Davis’s shoes and liking Wendy Davis because of her shoes. What is that difference? I know, let’s call it sexism.
When The Washington Post published a story about White House Chief Counsel Kathy Ruemmler’s shoes, Irin Carmon rightfully snapped back, “If Ruemmler didn’t want The Washington Post to talk about her shoes while she’s in the midst of White House ‘scandals,’ why did she wear them?” In the photo of Ruemmler featured in the Post, the other seven people in the Oval Office are all men. Notably, many seem to be wearing ties that border on neon colored. Where is the expose on that?
No, this is a phenomenon unique to women in leadership positions—that media stories about our intellects and accomplishments are often literally dressed down with descriptions about our clothing. In groundbreaking research, the Women’s Media Center and Celinda Lake showed that media commentary about what women candidates are wearing has a detrimental impact on their candidacy. In other words, the media simply noting what women are wearing—let alone critiquing or judging it—hurts the prospects of women in leadership.
And then I found myself and all my feminist friends ogling Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis’s shoes. When Davis accomplished a marathon 11-hour filibuster to block a ridiculously restrictive bill that would severely curtail women’s rights in the state, suddenly her shoes became iconic. Feminists and allies flocked to the Amazon website for Davis’s bright pink Mizuno “Wave Rider” sneakers and posted glowing review after review tied to Davis’s triumph. One reads:
“The next time you have to spend 13 hours on your feet without food, water, or bathroom breaks, this is the shoe for you. Guaranteed to outrun patriarchy on race day.”
Before buying a pair myself, I couldn’t help but wonder: is commenting on a woman leader’s footwear in media coverage the same thing as coveting a woman leader’s iconic sneakers? No.
In the sense that Wendy Davis is a hero, her shoes are a symbol—a talisman of feminism and political voice and literally standing up for what’s right. Her shoes are legitimately part of the story of filibustering for 11 hours, especially because they stood out. But pointing out what women leaders are wearing when it has absolutely nothing to do with the story is exactly the opposite—it undercuts the leadership of women and quashes their voice.
Recently, Ezra Klein and the Wonkblog at The Washington Post gave space to two academics to try to claim otherwise. The researchers lob ad hominem attacks at Celinda Lake’s findings while failing to disclose their own underlying data. The piece is an attack not only on the Women Media Center’s “Name It. Change It! Campaign” but an attack on the fundamental critique of media for highlighting the physical appearance of women leaders but not men. The researchers and Wonkblog seem to want to make excuses for media outlets, including ahem The Washington Post, that apparently think it relevant to report on the clothing of women in politics. Not that we should need any further evidence than the fact that media don’t comment on what male politicians are wearing in order to deem this sexist, but Lake’s data and assertions are as sound as they are troubling.
Recently, former Congressman turned New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner has made news for running around town in brightly colored pants. This is an interesting story. Is he doing it to flamboyantly court gay voters? Because he wants to draw attention back to his crotch? Or simply because he’s trying to look hip? Who knows, but it’s a definite departure from the standard male-candidate wardrobe and deserves attention. Just like Wendy Davis’s shoes departed from the norm and were almost their own character in her story.
But otherwise, men wear clothes. And women wear clothes. The news media rarely comment on what men are wearing. And they regularly comment on what women are wearing. And that reflects a subtle but persistent and insipient bias that demeans women political leaders across the country—whatever shoes they’re wearing. Let’s all buy some hot pink Mizunos and kick the mainstream media in the rear for its repeatedly sexist coverage.