Lis on Law: The Thin Line Between Words and Waist

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The political primaries are barely underway, and already the gloves are coming off. The media took note that New York Attorney General candidates Andrew Cuomo and Jeanine Pirro appear to be all smiles in front of the camera, but they really want to tear each other apart.

Just a few months ago, attacks flew back and forth between Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Bob Casey Jr., a democrat in the U.S. Senate race. To give a sampling on the war of the words between the men, a radio ad for Santorum ripped into Casey calling him a “pay-grabbing, work-skipping, liberal political opportunist." Casey fired back referring to Santorum as someone who “points fingers, divides people...and is one big hypocrite.”

Campaign season is ugly, and it can get even uglier if you are a woman.

Now, its one thing to use mudslinging as a political talking point for substantive issues, but what about when the barbs have nothing to do with the upcoming election and are simply a dig at an opponents appearance?

Women breaking political ground often struggle to garner media coverage and legitimacy that focuses on their ideas rather than their dress size. The good news is that women and men are often given an equal amount of coverage in the media. However, there were discrepancies in content of media coverage that often added up to a striking gap in the contrasting images of men and women.

Back in 1998, newspaper readers were more likely to read about a female candidate's personal life, appearance, or personality than that of a male candidate. In 1998, the Arizona Republic described incumbent gubernatorial candidate Governor Jane Dee Hull as a “grandmotherly redhead dressed in a sensible suit.” But Hull ran for governor, not best dressed of the year. That same year in a U.S. Senate campaign, incumbent U.S. Senator Patty Murphy and challenger U.S. Representative Linda Smith were distinguished on the color blue they wore. The Seattle Times said [Murray and Smith] are [different] — in style as well as politics. Even the shades of their blue power suits hinted at the gap between the women. Murray's was powder blue; Smith's, royal.”

How does the color of a woman's suit helps better inform the public on the issues at hand? In 2000, a Washington Post Style reporter tried to connect Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris' fashion blunders to her job performance when she wrote, “[Harris] seems to have applied her makeup with a trowel…one wonders how this Republican woman, who can't even use restraint when she's wielding a mascara wand, will manage to use it and make sound decisions in this game of partisan one-upmanship."

You might be thinking that times have changed in the last 10 years, but have they? Although in 2000, 2002 and 2004, there seemed to be less emphasis on a woman's physical appearance, examples are still rampant. Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer certainly has a way with words and women. The outspoken former Mayor refused to apologize to his opponent when he told her she was “getting fat.” Schaefer insisted Owens started the “dirty politics” when she likened him to a grandpa. Rivals often disparage one another's record or credibility, but this is far beyond the rules of engagement.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently found himself in a heated situation after speculating on the nationality of Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia — his words caught on tape. “I mean Cuban, Puerto-Rican, they are all hot…they have the, you know, part of the black blood in them and part of the Latino blood in them that together makes it.”

Schwarzenegger apologized to everyone he offended. His reps said the remarks were taken out of context. Regardless of context, females in political power positions are still too often focused on appearance rather than substance.

So, is it true that you are what you wear? An Internet search doesn't often disclose Donald Rumsfeld's waist size, but it does give us inside information concerning the importance of a woman's size to the media. When Hillary Rodham Clinton ran for Senate in New York in 2000 (successfully), the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel announced that Mrs. Clinton “whittled her figure down to a fighting size '8' by touching little more than a lettuce leaf during fundraisers.” In 2001, The Daily News lauded the incoming first lady for her small appetite: "Laura Bush apparently isn't the type to reach for the Haagen-Dazs when the going gets tough. During the 36 days of 'Indecision 2000,' she kept her hands out of the cookie jar and didn't gain any weight." And at one time, the Chicago Tribune described former Attorney General Janet Reno's dress size as “rangy.” I am confused. When did a size '8' become a political job requirement?

This type of appearance discrimination may hinder a woman's opportunity to lead the country. A handful of American states and city governments have passed ordinances prohibiting discrimination based on height, weight, or other physical characteristics. The intent of these laws is clear: To protect women from discrimination as they age, gain weight, and otherwise mature in ways that are irrelevant to the quality of their work.

In 1992, Santa Cruz passed what the media was quick to call “the most far-reaching anti-discrimination law in the country” — and, more graphically, the “ugly” ordinance. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of “sex, gender, sexual orientation, height, weight and personal appearance.” Several other cities, such as Urbana, Illinois and Madison, Wisconsin have passed similar provisions. San Francisco has adopted a statute, the “short and fat law,” that explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of height or weight. It is time to expand these legal protections nationwide, for the purpose of allowing women the opportunity to age appropriately and if numbers are used, let them reflect their IQ rather than their waist size.


Framing Gender on the Campaign Trail

Institute of Governmental Studies

Cosmetic Coverage

Cuomo Smiles, Pirro Gleams, and War Is On

Schwarzenegger: Cubans, Puerto Ricans 'all very hot'

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Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.