Why is There Such a Focus on What Women Wear in Politics?

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On March 28th, 2017, the Daily Mail’s front page was of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon, the Prime Minister and the First Minister of Scotland, with the headline “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!”

Not only was it grammatically incorrect, but also grossly inappropriate as the two leaders met to discuss the prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence and the triggering of article 50, not to talk fashion and legs. Of course, nobody is expecting the Daily Mail to be at the forefront of not sexualising women, but this is a problem across media in general. So why can’t the media focus on what women in politics have to say rather than what they’re wearing or what their legs look like?

A study published in Political Research Quarterly found that the gender of individuals running in an election influences how they are portrayed; articles about women for example, tend to talk more about their character and personality than men. This may not seem like a big deal – after all, there’s a lot to be said for personality politics – but articles on men focused 6 percent on their character, and 55.5 percent on political issues. With women, it was 9.4 percent on character and 53.1 percent on politics. However, election coverage should focus more on the politics of the matter and not what they’re like as a person, or the clothes they’re wearing – that’s not what they should be voted in on.

During Hillary Clinton’s victory speech at the New York Primary in April 2016, media outlets and social media were outraged at her almost $12,500 Armani jacket. Yet, they very rarely comment on the cost or make of a man’s clothes – I don’t understand why there are such double standards. Research has shown the importance appearance plays in election outcomes, and women are always under the spotlight more than men. Meanwhile, if you look at men in politics, it’s very difficult to find articles and social media posts dedicated to their fashion. The most popular one was probably Jeremy Corbyn being told to wear a proper suit by David Cameron, or Barack Obama wearing a tan suit to a press conference in 2014.

Of course, a lot of the criticism of women’s clothing comes from it being more decorative than the male politician’s typical choices of dark suits, plain ties and white shirts. If women wear a pantsuit they’re trying to come across like one of the guys, if they dress up they’re no longer relatable to lower income and working class constituents, if they don’t dress up they’re looking tired or too exposed. A study done by Girlguiding found that 41 percent of girls aged nine to 16 thought there had been an increase in media sexism towards women recently, with 39 percent saying it has had a negative impact on their confidence, which, ultimately, will put women off of going into politics, a space which is still too dominated by men.

Coming up to the 100 year anniversary of women’s suffrage, it’s finally time to end the scrutiny of women in politics for what they wear. Criticise their political choices and what they stand for – leave their clothes out of it.

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Third year PAIR student and head of events. Also The Edge's live editor and 2016-17 opinion editor. Fan of cats, gigs and a tea lover - find me rambling about politics and cats @_Carly_May on Twitter.

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