Daily Beast Treats Their 10 Women to Watch in Politics Like They’re Girls

From the get-go, the Daily Beast’s piece on “10 Women to Watch in Politics” was concerning. 

“You already know the women to watch in politics – Nancy, Hillary, and Sarah,” Patricia Murphy wrote.  Wait, is she referring to three middle school girls or to the first female Speaker of the House, our current Secretary of State, and the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate? 

Unfortunately, this profile of 10 women in politics – who are impressive and bring valuable policy experience and perspective to the political discussion – continued to miss the mark and reinforced some of the most common examples of sexist media coverage.

First up – the mommy problem.  The majority of these profiles make reference to the featured woman’s maternal role: three references to mother, one to mom, one to grandmother, and another that called Representative Cathy McMorris-Rodger’s greatest accomplishment “being the only member of Congress to give birth in office—twice.”  Here at Name It. Change It., we stress the Reversibility Test in media coverage – if you wouldn’t comment in the same way on a topic when covering a male politician, don’t do it for a female politician.  Would a profile of 10 men make as much reference to their paternal roles?  Probably not.

But what’s even more frustrating is the way that these politicians’ roles as mothers and grandmothers is brought up.  In the profile of Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Murphy reports that “the mother of two young children has also found herself as a much-buzzed-about member of Mitt Romney’s rumored VP shortlist.”  Being on a VP shortlist is a huge feat in politics, not something you just find yourself on.  And putting this political achievement in the same sentence as Ayotte’s personal life detracts from her professional accomplishment.  Would you hear a comment about how father-of-four Marco Rubio similarly found himself on Mitt Romney’s VP shortlist?  Probably not. 

Here’s another example of the conflation of the personal and professional – Val Demings (D-Fla.) is described as “the mother of three boys [who] saw the city’s violent crime rate fall by 40 percent under her leadership.”  But wait, was Demings acting as a mom or as chief of police when she implemented the policies that led to such a drop in Orlando’s crime rate? 

In another flub, women’s professional success are attributed to their personal traits and characteristics, not their experience or skill.  Why is former North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp doing so well in her Senate race?  Apparently, it’s “by sheer force of personality.”  Rather than highlighting Heitkamp’s appealing moderate policies and state leadership, her profile credits her success to friendliness.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) profile is also problematic.  The Daily Beast frames Gillibrand’s future political career with a source who says that the Democratic party “wants to nominate a woman…[Gillibrand] is at the top of the list.”  This quotation implies that Gillibrand is only a possible 2016 contender because she’s a woman and not because of her professional reputation in both the House and the Senate.  Are Andrew Cuomo and Martin O’Malley 2016 contenders because they’re men or because of their experience as governors? 

The Daily Beast provides yet another example of sexist media coverage by remarking on women’s clothes and appearance instead of focusing on their policy positions and experience.  In reference to Elizabeth Warren, Murphy warns readers, “The grandmother of three favors cardigan sweaters and granny glasses… But don’t let the friendly librarian garb fool you.”  We’ve blogged about sexist coverage of Elizabeth Warren many times before, and this comment about her style instead of her substance is just the latest example how media coverage of women in politics is viewed through the prism of their gender.

The Daily Beast’s goal of highlighting some awesome women politicians and candidates is worthy, but their execution is disappointing.  Sexism in the media has serious consequences for female politicians.  Perhaps next time Murphy and her colleagues at The Daily Beast—or any other media outlet—wants to cover women in politics, they can consult our guide to Gender Neutral Coverage of Women Candidates and Politicians so that their piece can appropriately praise rather than detract from women’s political careers.


Published by Kate McCarthy on 06/13/2012

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