The XX Factor

The Real Problem With Writing About a Senator’s Purse

Sen. Claire McCaskill talks with reporters about last night’s episode of Project Runway.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The shoes and handbags of women working in politics have been the recent subject of articles by the Washington Post and New York Times, attracting a lot of discussion of whether such stories constitute sexist media coverage.

It’s a common trope in journalism: Articles that profile powerful women will work in mentions of the subject’s shoes, clothing, or jewelry. Details such as the fact that Rep. Kyrsten Sinema was wearing a “full-skirted dress splashed with plum-colored flowers” and “magenta” glasses, or that senatorial candidate Linda McMahon toured a senior center while wearing “brown blouse, black skirt, and knee high black suede boots with a short heel,” or that Sen. Elizabeth Warren went “table to table” at a lunch spot in Dorchester “wearing a pink blazer and sandals” are ubiquitous in reporting on female candidates and politicians. (Only when you flip the gender of the subject of the story, it becomes obvious how weird such details read because you can’t find such reportage about men in politics, even in longer profile pieces.)

Maybe it’s presumed by reporters that such details about women in politics are newsworthy signifiers of something—although as Amanda Hess recently pointed out, the mention of heels in a story is usually used not to hint at a certain personality trait but rather to create a “deviation from the male standard.” But it’s far more likely that reporters are simply aping a style that’s become the norm without much thought as to why they think someone’s purse, heels, or skirt style is important to note.

Here’s what they should know: Inclusion of such details has an unintended and detrimental effect for subjects of their stories.

Name It. Change It., a joint project of the Women’s Media Center, where I work, and She Should Run, recently released a study conducted by Celinda Lake of Lake Research Partners on how such dropped-in mentions of women’s clothing and appearance affect voters. For our study, we had probable voters read gender-neutral descriptions of a hypothetical male and female candidate and then asked them how likely they would be to vote for one over the other. At the beginning they liked each candidate about equally. Then four separate groups of study participants each heard a slightly different version of a news story about both hypothetical candidates. One group’s news story didn’t mention the female candidate’s clothing or appearance at all, and of that group, half said they would vote for the male candidate, half for the female candidate. But the three groups of study participants who heard a news story that mentioned the woman’s appearance suddenly changed their minds and started ranking the female candidate as less experienced, confident, effective, and qualified than her male opponent. Whether her clothing and appearance were discussed in a positive or negative fashion, just the addition of this information made the participants less likely to vote for her. This happened even when the mention of her clothing was a neutral detail, such as the fact she wore a “brown blouse, black skirt, and modest pumps with a short heel,” at a press conference; the study participants rated the female candidate differently than those who heard the same story without those details.

We only tested what happens when small mentions of women’s clothing and appearance were added to the news coverage, but as Lake told me, “I could only imagine how much damage to the candidate’s electability would occur if the study participants had heard a whole article about the subject.”

With our results in mind, editors probably need to ask themselves if the inclusion of fashion details—or entire articles devoted to them—is worth the unintended, biasing impact. Are these details really so newsworthy, or are they just an outdated habit in journalism being perpetuated without much thought? Before we next see a woman run for president, we might want to have that discussion.

As for the candidate or politician’s complicity, Lake has worked with hundreds of female candidates and says not one has spontaneously started talking about her shoes or clothes on the record to reporters. It’s always the reporter who asks first, she says.

“I’ve been standing next to the reporters who ask questions like, ‘Tell me about your favorite handbag, senator,’ and usually the woman is trying to avoid answering the question or trying to hide their annoyance at being asked because they don’t want to come off like a bitch,” Lake says. “I don’t know any congresswoman who wants to talk about her handbag instead of her economic plan. I’ve never heard a woman politician spontaneously say to a reporter, ‘Let me tell you about my bag.’ ”

Rachel Larris is the communications manager at the Women’s Media Center.