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The M Dash

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The Politics of Style: On the Women Running for Office in 2018

November 02, 2018 | Filed in: Your Brain

If you haven’t been paying attention to the news lately, (lucky you!) there’s a big election coming up. One exciting new development this year is the record number of women running, and the implications for how that will change the image of the typical candidate for office (almost always male, very often white) in our culture. Below, one team member on witnessing these changes—and how they’re showing up in the self-presentation of these female candidates. 

When Hillary Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination for President of the United States in the summer of 2016, she wore one of her signature pantsuits in a pristine shade of white. This wardrobe decision was covered heavily in the media, and many reporters picked up on the fact that the color was likely a nod to suffragettes, who donned white clothing while protesting for their right to vote. It was a memorable look, not only because it was well executed and very her (it was a pantsuit, after all), but because it was heavy with symbolism. She was the first woman to get this far, ever, and what she wore that night was always going to be important—even historic.

As we all know now, the nomination is as far as she would get. But just two years after that election, the political landscape for women is starting to look different—literally. For one thing, there are way more women running for office in 2018: 256 women won House and Senate primaries this year alone, setting a new record, and more records will almost certainly be broken on Election Day this Tuesday.

It’s been fascinating to watch this groundswell of women throwing their hats into the ring—not only because it’s inspiring, but because I’m getting to watch a whole new cohort (including members of my own generation) navigate and challenge the still-entrenched cultural assumptions about what a candidate for office is supposed to look like, talk like, and act like. It takes a lot of bravery to do that, given that even in 2018, women running for public office still have to submit to the endless scrutiny of their appearance that is always so much harsher than it is for men.

Earlier this year, Racked interviewed a group of female candidates, who almost uniformly agreed that they try to conform to a conservative, low-key dress code while campaigning. And while both women and men running for office are eager to keep the focus on the words they’re saying and not, say, a distractingly loud printed tie or dress, the burden on women to dress professionally yet stylishly, with effort but not too much, is much higher. As the same article points out, Janet Yellen was mocked for wearing the same outfit…a month after she first wore it.

Who sets the style rules for women who run? I called Abra Belke, who began her career in D.C. working for a Republican representative in her home state of Montana, to mull over this question. Though she is a longtime D.C. resident, her styling bona fides come from a long-running blog she founded called “Capitol Hill Style” (recently rebranded as “The Work Edit”). From the beginning, the site grappled with the question, “What is ‘appropriate’ work attire for women working in government?”

“The site evolved out of both personal need and the fact that early on in my time on the Hill, friends who were staff assistants and were supervising interns would ask me to take their interns to coffee to talk to them about what they should be wearing to work,” Belke told me. The tag line for “Capitol Hill Style” was initially “A site for D.C. women who don’t want to sacrifice their personal style for professional success,” which strikes me as an astute articulation of the dilemma faced by female candidates—the need to conform to certain norms of self-presentation, balanced with a desire to dress authentically, in whatever way that might mean for them.

“One of the difficult things when you’re a woman and you’re in politics in general, especially when you are running for office, is that you are trying to project competence and trustworthiness, and all of the things that the men are trying to project with their clothing,” Belke said. Of course, women are disadvantaged when it comes to projecting gravitas, leadership, and other qualities we think of as inherently masculine. And while the demands of a campaign are extraordinarily difficult for both genders, the threshold for success for women is much higher.

“In a campaign, a woman might be on her feet for 12 hours straight,” Belke said. “She might have to sit in a car between campaign stops for two and a half hours with no time to stop and freshen up or change clothes. When I was working with the congressman from Montana, we would often get into the car in Billings at 5 A.M., and we would drive to Bozeman two hours away. And then we’d be in Bozeman for two hours, and then get back in the car and drive another hour to Butte, and be in Butte for an hour for lunch. We’d get back in the car and go to a fundraiser. We’d get back in the car and drive to another city two and a half hours away. This was not an abnormal day.”

Despite those punishing schedules, we still expect our candidates to look rested and composed, for their clothes to look freshly pressed and un-mussed. It’s an almost unthinkable challenge for me, who starts to give up on the finer points of personal style after a few days in a row of getting up before the sun rises.

“Often, television sets the expectation for what people in a certain profession should look like,” Belke said. “The vast majority of Americans have never met a politician in person, but they’ve seen them—not only on the news, but on shows like House of Cards or The West Wing. And that has set a certain expectation for what people in politics should look like. So you always have to be mindful that, whether you’re going to try to live up to that expectation or not, that expectation exists.”

It’s true that many of our depictions of candidates and officeholders have been fictional—especially for office-holding women (in an alternate universe, after all, Claire Underwood is our president). But watching who has decided to run over the last two years has made me think that those norms are beginning to change. I’ve seen it in the record numbers of women of color running for office, in the young female candidates who dress like me and my friends might, and in the fierceness of the many moms running for office. Each generation of women who runs paves the way a little bit smoother for the next group, and 2018 feels like a leap forward.

“What does a candidate look like?” Belke asked rhetorically during our call. “Well, for 200 years, a candidate looked like a man.” This year, that assumption is being challenged more than ever. And following the election, with more women going into public service from all different backgrounds all over the country, the definition of what a typical candidate looks like will continue to be interrogated and exploded. Hopefully, it will no longer be the job of just a few women to set the standard for how female office-seekers dress, how they do their hair or makeup, how they speak and command a room. Hopefully, there will be many more.

We hope you’re as excited as we are to get out and vote on Tuesday, November 6th. And if you need some extra pep in your step to head to the polls, look no further than our latest shoe collection