How media sexism hurts women politicians


Over the years, we have made great progress all over the world in the number of women in our national politics. Women now have a right to vote, they can now hold political offices, rising to becoming heads of state, prime ministers, elected representatives, senators, judges of our high courts, leading the ICC, holding top offices in the UN, serving as vice Presidents, secretaries of state. Notable female politicians in the past include Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain, Indira Gandhi of India, Golda Meir of Israel who all served as prime ministers of their countries in the late 1890s and 1990s. Also there was the powerful empress Catherine the Great former empress of Russia who became the most renowned and longest ruling female leader of Russia. In modern times, we are seeing women like Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Angela Merkel, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Elizabeth Warren, Nikki Haley, and of course, the women politicians from my own country, Isatou Njie-Saidy, Vice President of The Gambia, who’s served in that capacity for about twenty years, amongst many others. On the international front, women like Fatou Bensouda, who is originally from The Gambia, and served as Minister for Justice of The Gambia and former advisor of President Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia, who now serves as Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Her appointment was a proud moment for my country. While we celebrate all of these great achievements that women all over the world are making, we also acknowledge the sexism that still exists in politics all over the world. As the number of women running for office increases, so does the media sexism and attacks that include sexist language, and this is a cause for concern.

Women in politics have long endured the high amount of sexism they face in the media. While some people are of the view that there exists no sex discrimination in modern politics, the reality of our national politics truly contradicts their argument.  A book written by Political Science Professors at George Washington University and American University, Danny Hayes and Jennifer L. Lawless, argues that there is now a “Declining difference in media treatment between male and female candidates” (Lawless, Hayes). Lawless and Hayes are comparing the media treatment of women now to the past. While I agree that women now have equal treatment in terms of getting media coverage compared to the past, how about we look into the content of the coverage? If the media is giving equal coverage to women politicians, we don’t have to give them an award for that, it is what should be normal in a normal society; and we live in a normal society, at least we think we do. Let’s look into the things that the media covers about female politicians, that will show us how much more damage than good this coverage is actually doing to women politicians.

A good deal of media coverage on a woman politician is about her looks and style of clothing first, and more than anything else. While appearance is everything in politics, (I wonder why it has to be, anyway) how often do we hear a male candidate or politician’s style of clothing making headlines? Not so often as we see when it comes to the way the media over-analyzes a female candidate’s style of clothing. President Cristina Fernandez De kirchner who served as President of Argentina from 2007 to 2015, after the death of her husband, the former Argentinean President, was nationally and internationally castigated for her looks. An extremely beautiful lady with so much class made her an “anomaly” in the political environment. “Much has been said about the way she looks, about her make-up, her extensions and long hair, her being fond of high heels, her being inappropriately sexy” (Dembroucke). We saw the same for Hillary Clinton as she runs to be President. Talk shows and mainstream media “routinely turned to analysis of her “’rainbow coalition”’ of pantsuits (Farmer) in the 2008 Presidential Campaign. Democratic Vice President nominee Sarah Palin also received many similar comments. The 2016 elections also illustrate this. As Dembroucke notes in her article, quoting Nicaragua and Norris in the 1980s and 1990s, Margaret Thatcher and President Violeta Chamorro received similar attention regarding their looks and attire (Dembroucke).


When female politicians are not criticized for their appearance, they are criticized for their vocal styles. In 2008 presidential campaign, we saw Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid describe former vice presidential nominee Governor Sarah Palin as a “shrill.” Reid who is often considered to be a democratic leader and supporter of women said this statement with no amount of remorse, as if it was a normal thing. Well, isn’t it a normal thing? It’s become so normal. Hillary’s voice has been described as “scolding” (CNN) and “nagging.”  She’s being ridiculed for “cackling” and her claps have been compared to “Clapping like a seal” (Farmer). All these comments on the vocal styles of female politicians are ways that the media and male politicians diminish women politicians (Sollee). Society and the media are more drawn to the way a woman speaks than to the content of her words. Most times, the mainstream media spends much more time discussing the vocal style of Hillary Clinton than debating her political views and mission.

Even the wives of party front runners took some of these hits from the media. It just shows how very “unfriendly” our media is with women. We saw this in 2008 in the comparisons between the wives of the party front runners, Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain. Michelle Obama, an ivy league graduate lawyer, sounded so eloquent and smart, but she was often referred to as an angry black woman. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly said, “Michelle Obama looked like an angry black woman” (Farmer). Cindy McCain on the other hand, was often referred to as a “Stepford wife” (Farmer). Female politicians have always tried hard to fit into societal expectations of them but none has ever succeeded yet. This is because society already has a mindset about what a woman should be. She is either cool or tough, she is either submissive or an “angry black woman.” But when Barack Obama spoke tough and hard during the 2008 elections, no one talked about “an angry black man.” Everyone celebrated the strength in his words, but Michelle was being criticized and ridiculed for those same words. Why? I think it’s because she is a woman.

In my country too, I have seen how much most of the discussions and debates about the First Lady of my country, Madam Zineb Yahya Jammeh have mostly centered on her choice of clothing, vocal styles and even the expressions on her face. I remember hearing conversations and statements that defined her as “too unfeminine,” “too serious faced.” Comments on the other side, from people like me, have called her “too beautiful,” “elegant.” The difference on opinions of how some of us thought she was too “quiet, calm, elegant and reserved,” others thought she was too “serious” show a great deal of sexism that exists all over the world directed at women politicians and women involved in politics. Women in politics are left wondering: Will I ever be good enough for the media? What a world of hell!

In the same way, Margaret Thatcher was called “Iron Lady and Britain’s Fighting Lady.” First Lady Maryam Faal Sall of Senegal is also said to have a very “serious personality,” and so is Madame Halimatou Diallo, spouse of Guinea Conakry’s main opposition leader, Cellou Daillen Diallo.  How about listening to the words they say and appreciating the work they do; and of course criticizing when appropriate? How about if we start paying much attention to the actual words and works of women politicians, rather than to their vocal styles, choice of clothing or looks?

Also whereas the electorate of any country desire strong presidents, a strong woman candidate pushing for votes and campaigning hard is often described with the most unfair adjectives that are never used to describe men who campaign hard. Professor Pendleton, a Bradley University Professor Emeritus, addressing a chapter of the National Organization for Women in March, “talked about the double standards that Clinton faced during the primary campaign” (Farmer). Farmer, in her articles, quotes Professor Bradley, “When she campaigns hard, she is often described as strategizing, calculating, or fake. But when men campaign hard, it is refusing to cede an inch” (‘Pendleton’ Farmer).

The double standards and sexism that exist in politics is too easily ignored and even feminists and men who are great supporters of women’s rights to hold high office often make this mistake, of making sexist comments towards women in politics, without even realizing that it is wrong. Remember when Barack Obama commented that his friend, California Attorney General, Kamala Harris was the “best looking” AG in the world? Even though, the intentions of this statement might have been positive, the reality of the matter is “the moment a woman contending for power within the system of power gets talked about as if she’s contending for top marks within the system of beauty, it diminishes her standing in the power realm” (Franke-Ruta). I just realized that I had these double standards too at some point.

I remember getting introduced by a great politician friend of mine to a very prominent international woman politician who was residing in The Gambia in 2014. After my meeting with this woman, which lasted for an hour, I walked out of that meeting feeling inspired and motivated. I felt that I had found a mentor in her. As I explained the encounter to my mom, the first statement I said was, “Mom, she is a very beautiful woman. She has beautiful skin, and she was dressed in very normal clothing–cheap clothes as if she was not that important!” Why was this the first thing I said to my mom before telling her, “Mom, she has a powerful story and has done so much great work all over Africa and in the world”?  The latter statement was always how I start the conversation to explain how my meeting with a male politician went to my mom; I never even saw the clothing of male politicians, I was seeing their ACTUAL WORDS!

Even in the country called the greatest nation on earth, the USA, we continue to see these double standards too in everyday politics. Remember when Barack Obama cried in his last campaign speech in Iowa, there were cheers and emotions from the crowd. The mainstream media called it strong (literally) and many other average Americans said, it showed how much he truly loves the country he serves. I also remember sharing that video on Facebook with the caption, “Truly what it takes to be President,” but when Hillary Clinton cried once during a campaign stop in the 2008 elections, “She was mocked and her motivation second-guessed” (Farmer).

While we see all of these double standards in our national and world politics, some of us are still of the view that there actually exists no form of sexism in political media, that it is just an idea which feminists have. An article in the “Georgetown Public Policy Review” authored by Professor Lawless and Hayes argues that, the idea that sexualizing female politicians in the media affects their political career is just something that feminists “made up.” Lawless and Hayes went on to argue that, “People care more about political party than gender when evaluating and deciding on candidates” (Lawless and Hayes).The bias of this argument is so obvious and too narrow minded–and so drifted from the realities on the political ground/media.

The argument on the double standards and sexism in media politics is not a feminist notion. It is a reality; a reality that affects the careers of female politicians. Many female politicians in the limelight have tried to appear more to society’s expectations of them. They have tried to get away from the “nagging” voice to appear more feminine. Some have changed their dress styles to look more feminine, some have even changed their hairstyles to win the hearts of the mainstream media who have so much power in influencing public decision. But even in this, they get name-called. When she acts too cool and feminine, a woman politician is often called too “feminine” for politics, and when she acts tough, strong and smart on the campaign trail, she is often described as too “unfeminine.” The emotional damage and break that this name-calling, political media evaluations, mockery, and abuse that female politicians face in politics is exactly one of the reasons why we have a smaller percentage of women in politics all over the world. In the USA, the country that champions women’s rights and empowerment, it is interesting to note that the 144th congress of the USA is “comprised of nearly twenty percent women” (Bump). How fair is it that women are half of our society but make just fifth of Congress?

This article was written in August last year.

By Isatou S Barry