The XX Factor

Should Kagan Cross Her Legs?

It is Washington Post columnist Robin Givhan’s job to scrutinize the style of Washington elites, and mostly she is brilliant at it. Generally, Givhan tries to subject both sexes equally to her high standards of proper public presentation. (Here is her iconic column about Dick Cheney wearing a parka to an Auschwitz commemoration ceremony.) I know Robin from my days at the Post and have always greatly admired her.

In this weekend’s column on Elena Kagan , though, you can see her struggling. She seemed to be forgiving Kagan for what she called Kagan’s “anti-style offensive,” because, when making her rounds of Captiol Hill last week, Kagan “embraced dowdy as a mark of brainpower.” An old Washington habit that Michelle Obama hasn’t managed to break in us.

But then came this doozy of a style error: Kagan, Givhan writes, “sat hunched over. She sat with her legs ajar.” Kagan’s offense was repeated in the caption, which, seriously, comes straight from Ms . magazine circa 1962-“Most women, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, cross their legs when sitting, but not Kagan.” First of all, that word “ajar,” with its implications of peeking and entry. Weird, and slightly lewd. Second, the phrase “most women.” Really? Is that still required? While reading it, I had to look down and check. Are my legs crossed while reading this story? Nope.

I suppose surfaces do mean something in a city where people are in the business of packaging themselves, so it’s worth picking them over. But when the analysis jibes exactly with some nasty old stereotypes-namely, that women should cross their legs for the same reason they should wear corsets and speak only in pleasing ways-well, it’s time to let those go. Particularly for a woman who has been subjected to every kind of euphemism imaginable to suggest that she is not like the other girls.

Photograph of Elena Kagan and Olympia Snowe by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.