Power in Pantsuits

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Though women face higher levels of criticism for their wardrobe choices than men, they aren’t backing down in their quest to run for office

By: Katie Carlton
Design: Katie Siegler

Hillary Clinton’s style is synonymous with the iconic pantsuits that she has worn since her run for Senate in 2000. The pantsuits became an integral part of her presidential campaign in 2016, when she capitalized on their notoriety through jokes after years of negative remarks from the media. Her campaign store featured an ‘everyday pantsuit’ t-shirt and Clinton joked about her appearance in her social media biographies.

Clinton is not alone in her experience however; many other women in politics have been subjected to critical coverage for their fashion choices.

Dianne Bystrom is the director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. Bystrom studies the way in which female politicians interact with the public through campaign materials and the way that the media covers female candidates.

“The media frames women candidates differently than men,” Bystrom said. “When covering female presidential politics, it is [glaringly obvious] when looking at women candidates like Carly Fiorina or Sarah Palin.”

According to The Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics, women are a minority at all levels of elected office in the United States, thus female politicians may not be treated as the norm by the media.

“[Female politicians] are criticized more than men for their fashion,” Bystrom said.

This level of criticism demonstrates a double-standard in the media, as women are often unfairly targeted. Bystrom says that men don’t face a fraction of the scrutiny women and their wardrobe choices do, though there was some criticism of Barack Obama’s attire in 2008. So, while there are a few instances of male politicians receiving fashion criticism, the majority of criticism is directed toward female politicians.

In the 2008 election, both Clinton and Palin’s fashion was a fixation of the media. Clinton and Palin dressed distinctly different, with Clinton generally wearing pantsuits and Palin wearing dresses or skirts. “Clinton was seen as masculine, while Palin was seen as feminine or sexualized,” Bystrom said. Though their political views and other aspects of their personas were taken into account as well, their wardrobe and appearance weighed into the public’s view of them in a way that doesn’t occur with men.

Linda Westergaard currently serves as the Des Moines City Council Representative for Ward II. Westergaard is one of only two women currently serving on the Des Moines City council, which Westergaard says, has historically been male dominated.

Westergaard began campaigning about a year and half before the Des Moines City Council election in 2015, but she was a passionate community activist for about 40 years prior. Her campaigning took many different forms; she passed out pamphlets, knocked on doors, attended community meetings and walked in parades.

“You have to try harder as a woman for people to take you seriously,” Westergaard said. “You want to make sure that you look your best always.”

Westergaard’s personal experiences represent how women may feel that they are faced with additional barriers in their campaign image due to their gender. Westergaard said she hopes to display herself in a professional manner to her counterparts on City Council.

“I dress professionally for City Council meetings. I try to look nice and dress appropriate. I normally wear a sport coat,” says Westergaard.

Westergaard said she feels that it is important to project a professional image in formal settings. Although, the professional attire that Westergaard wears may differ from the men on the City Council.

“[As a woman] you can’t wear the same sport coat everyday. You have to have more variation in your outfits than men and accessories are important,” Westergaard said. That, and she said she feels that as a woman dressing for political meetings, she has to put more effort into her attire in order to avoid criticism.

“The criticism informs the choices that women make,” Bystrom said. Bystrom feels that female politicians have to be particularly aware of how are they are portraying themselves. This may mean putting more effort into their image as a politician by representing themselves in more of a professional way of dress than men would.

Although Westergaard dresses professionally for City Council meetings, she likes to reflect her constituency when out and about in her community. She represents the Northeast part of Des Moines, which is a largely working class community, and the residents tend to be of middle income.

“I try to portray the community in the way that I dress, so I normally wear a nice pair of slacks and a polo,” Westergaard said.

In relation to Westergaard’s style of dress, Bystrom said, “Clothing has to be tied to background.”

Female politicians at the federal level, like Joni Ernst, similarly emulate their constituency in the way they dress, as Ernst wore clothing like overalls that reflected her rural Iowan roots in her campaign advertisements.

Despite the criticism that female politicians face regarding their wardrobe choices, women are still ready and willing to run for political office. The Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics saw increased numbers of women interested in their campaign training programs in 2016.

“There was a record enrollment of 172 women in the Ready to Run For Campaign,” Bystrom said. The unfair portrayal by the media has not discouraged these women from running, but they may feel a need to portray themselves in a certain fashion.

Westergaard similarly did not feel hindered by sexism in running for office.

“Being a woman energized me to run for political office,” Westergaard said.

Even though Westergaard may have faced additional pressures in campaigning as a woman, she felt that it was important to be a woman involved in local politics, which Bystrom said is a common theme with women.

“There are thousands of women becoming interested in running for office,” Bystrom said.

If more women enter the male-dominated profession of politics, then there may be less criticism of female politicians’ fashion as they become equally represented in the world of politics.

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