When vice presidential hopeful Kamala Harris delivers her prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday, pay attention to the words used to describe her.
Unfortunately, commentators, opinionmakers and sometimes even news reporters have a bad habit of describing female politicians in ways they rarely or never do about male politicians.
“… (T)he media will engage in a mad rush to define, dissect, inspect and criticize Harris — likely not for her views or her record, but for her likability, her ‘team player’ quotient, her compatibility with Biden, her physical appearance, her seriousness or lack thereof, and on and on,” Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote last week after presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden selected Harris has his running mate. “They will comment on her clothes, her smile and her hair. … Even at a climactic moment for the political inclusion of African American women, we will likely find it difficult to quash the tired double standards and just plain dumb commentary that women have put up with for years.”
Indeed, women have put up with it for years.
On the national political stage, Geraldine Ferraro made history by becoming the first woman to run for vice president in 1984, alongside Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale.
During a campaign event in Mississippi, she was famously asked by a man if she knew how to bake blueberry muffins. And during an appearance on network television, she was asked whether she’d be able to “push the nuclear button.”
“I can do whatever is necessary in order to protect the security of this country,” Ferraro replied.
Later in that same interview, moderator Marvin Kalb asked if she thought she would have been Mondale’s VP choice if she wasn’t a woman.
“That’s … a double-edged sword,” Ferraro said. “I don’t know if I were, if I were not a woman, if I would be judged in the same way on my candidacy, whether or not I’d be asked questions like, you know, are you strong enough to push the button.”
Twenty-four years later, Republican presidential candidate John McCain picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. She faced questions over whether she should take on the VP job given her responsibilities as a mother of five children.
Palin also endured endless commentary about what she wore. During that 2008 campaign, news photographs would often show her only from the knees down to highlight her high-heeled shoes.
And, of course, there’s 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who for decades has weathered criticism about her hairstyles, pantsuits and “likeability.”
Now, here we are in 2020 with Harris embarking on the biggest political campaign of her life as the first black woman to appear on a presidential ticket. We know sexists (not to mention racists) will litter the conversation with attacks that have nothing to do with her policy positions. It’s a sad reality of the times we continue to live in.
But can the media do better this time around? Can the commentators and journalists stick to what she says and stay away from what she’s wearing? And if they insist on making her fashion choices, smile and whether she looks like an angry person a topic of discussion, how about an equally hard look at what the men look like?
I won’t hold my breath waiting for that hard-hitting analysis of Biden’s leather wingtips, monochromatic necktie and grin.
Jason Piscia is director of the UIS Public Affairs Reporting program, which trains journalists to intelligently report on government and politics.