On Purses and Policies: The Disadvantages to Women’s Clothing in Politics

Within what felt like moments after Barrack Obama’s 2008 Presidential Victory, his female counterpart, wife and First Lady Michelle Obama, was on the covers of countless publications. Were these magazines dying to interview our First Lady about her political opinions? Her great plans for creating change and being a role model? Some were, but one was hard-pressed to find an article that didn’t make comments about her fashion choices.

In a public sphere where image is everything, are women disadvantaged from the moment they get dressed in the morning? It would seem so, as major media outlets and political opponents have a knack for obsessing more with female politicians’ wardrobes than their values.

Though the media has often praised Michelle Obama for her stylish, bold dresses, they haven’t made nearly as much of an effort to comment upon her strength of character and political goals. The message this sends is clear: women’s bodies and appearance hold more value than their intellect and character. Hillary Rodham Clinton hasn’t been quite as lucky as the First Lady. She’s been targeted by media outlets that have criticized everything from her weight and hairstyle to her wardrobe, drawing attention to Clinton’s personal style rather than to her strength as a politician.

In an article for the New York Times, Ashley Parker examines the role of handbags in politics. She explains, “In some ways, the female legislator’s purse or bag has become one of the most outwardly physical manifestations of the nation’s changing deliberative body,” noting that accessories in politics are a marker of a larger female presence.

According to Democratic strategist Tracy Sefl, “Today’s purses and bags are as new and interesting of a visual as the red power suit once was. They pop on the C-Span cameras, they serve a purpose and — intentionally or not — they make a statement.”

In this regard, women politicians are faced with the twofold challenge of being taken seriously without compromising their femininity. The media places extra scrutiny on women in powerful positions, and the easiest way to strip these incredible women of their strength is to associate their public presence solely with their appearance.

So, keep a lookout for those female politicians’ purses in the media, but don’t forget that their politics are far more important than their appearances.

Photo credit Hermès

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