Gender stereotypes and discussions of Armani suits dominate media's coverage of Speaker-elect Pelosi

››› ››› JULIE MILLICAN

Since the Democratic Party won control of both the House and the Senate, the media have focused on such issues as Pelosi's choice of attire and whether being female will affect her ability to lead. MSNBC anchor Contessa Brewer wondered if Pelosi's "personal feelings [were] getting in the way of effective leadership" -- a problem she suggested would not surface in "men-run leadership posts" -- and whether men were "more capable of taking personality clashes."

Since the Democratic Party won control of both the House and the Senate in the midterm elections, in coverage purportedly about the leadership capabilities of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the incoming House speaker, the media have focused on such issues as Pelosi's choice of attire and whether being female will affect her ability to lead.

On the November 18 edition of MSNBC Live, anchor Contessa Brewer wondered if Pelosi's "personal feelings [were] getting in the way of effective leadership" -- a problem she suggested would not surface in "men-run leadership posts" -- and whether men were "more capable of taking personality clashes." Brewer then asked Republican strategist Brad Blakeman:

BREWER: Brad, do you see that there is a difference between the men-run leadership posts? I mean, are they more capable of taking personality clashes, setting them aside, and saying, "In order for me to get ... from point A to point B, I've got to set aside my personal feelings towards this guy"?

Brewer questioned whether the "Democrats might revisit the issue" of electing Pelosi speaker, because "there are two months left before she takes over that position, officially," and, "certainly, there is a difference between picking the leader of your minority party and picking the leader of your majority party." Later, Brewer suggested that Pelosi had "accidentally" attained the speaker position, asking Democratic strategist Mark Walsh: "When you have a position that comes upon you accidentally, does it change the way people view you in that leadership position, especially because you're a woman in line for the presidency?"

Other media figures have echoed Brewer's remarks. For instance:

  • On the November 16 edition of CNN's Newsroom, CNN political analyst Bay Buchanan asserted that Pelosi's "judgment is based on emotions and not good sense."
  • In her November 18 nationally syndicated column, titled "Squeaker of the House" (subscription required), New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd charged that "Nancy Pelosi's first move, after the Democratic triumph, was to throw like a girl" and accused Pelosi of "making her first move based on relationships and past slights rather than strategy."
  • Writing in the November 15 edition of the Binghamton, New York, Press & Sun-Bulletin, associate editor David Rossie, in an otherwise complimentary column, asked "Is a woman really up to" the task of "backing the ship of state off the reef that six years of Republican ineptitude have run it," "physically, emotionally?"

Additionally, numerous media figures and outlets have focused their coverage on, not Pelosi's leadership capabilities or plans as speaker, but on her clothing. For instance:

  • On the November 12 edition of NBC's The MacLaughlin Group, Washington Times editorial director Tony Blankley commented that Pelosi "dresses a lot better" than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY).
  • In a November 13 online chat, Washington Post congressional reporter Shailagh Murray was asked "Why, whenever a woman comes into a position of power, is there a description of who designed her outfit?" Murray responded that she felt "this trait among my fellow scribes to be annoying," but that "[i]t's definitely legitimate to talk about clothes or anything appearance related, if there's something exceptional to say. For instance, if she were constantly changing her hairstyle."
  • A November 9 USA Today article described Pelosi as the "Armani-clad daughter of an old-fashioned Baltimore politician."
  • The November 20 edition of Newsweek magazine declared that the "new" "conventional wisdom" is that "Armani grandma [Pelosi] will be history-making Speaker."
  • In her November 19 Boston Herald column, Margery Eagan wrote that Pelosi "makes me cringe" and asked if there's "something wrong with her." Eagan asserted that Pelosi "has been all over TV this weekend with that wide-eyed, runaway bride thing going" while "wearing her bright red pantsuit (an Armani, you think?)." Eagen also complained that Pelosi was "smiling too wide."
  • During the November 11 edition of NBC's weekend edition of Today, co-host Campbell Brown discussed how "Nancy Pelosi's very poised, wearing the beautiful Armani suits, never a hair out of place" and asked author Myrna Blyth: "How important is that?"
  • The caption of a November 10 AP photograph of Pelosi read: "House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., arrives on Capitol Hill Nov. 8, 2006, in Washington dressed in an Armani acqua blue-grey pantsuit as she heads towards her first news conference since Election Day and the Democrats' rise to power in both houses of Congress."

Media Matters for America has previously noted (here, here, here, and here) media figures attacking Pelosi based on her gender or appearance, or simply making sexist comments. For instance, on the November 16 edition of Fox News' Special Report, Roll Call executive editor Morton M. Kondracke called Pelosi "the Wicked Witch of the West." In a November 17 column, New York Post Washington bureau chief Deborah Orin-Eilbeck twice called Pelosi a "shrew." On the November 13 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, host Chris Matthews asked political and social commentator Mike Barnicle if Pelosi was "going to castrate [Rep.] Steny Hoyer [D-MD]" if Hoyer is elected House majority leader, which he ultimately was. Discussing the victory speeches of Clinton and Pelosi during MSNBC's special election coverage on November 7, Matthews told Republican pollster Frank Luntz that Pelosi will "have to do the good fight with the president over issues" such as the minimum wage and prescription drugs. He then asked: "How does she do it without screaming? How does she do it without becoming grating?"

And in his October 26 "Real Free Speech" commentary, on Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, "comedian" and Fox News contributor Dennis Miller assailed Pelosi as a "nimrod," "a C-minus, D-plus applicant ... who no doubt would have been drummed out of the Mary Kay corps after an initial four-week evaluation period." In addition, on the November 16 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, host Wolf Blitzer asked "[H]ow badly is [Rep.] Nancy Pelosi [D-CA] damaged politically?" while the onscreen text asked: "Damaged Goods?"

From the noon ET hour of the November 18 edition of MSNBC News Live:

BREWER: The battle on Capitol Hill is just beginning, and Democrats, in the House, really aren't -- they're not off to the best start here. How a defeat in her very first test as incoming speaker could hurt Nancy Pelosi and her party when they officially take power in January.

[...]

BREWER: All right, well, so she was chosen speaker but, still, there are two months left before she takes over that position, officially. Do you think, Debbie, at this point, the Democrats might revisit the issue because, certainly, there is a difference between picking the leader of your minority party and picking the leader of your majority party.

DINGELL: No.

BREWER: Being speaker of the House.

DINGELL: They are not going to revisit this issue. The election occurred in the caucus on Thursday. They know who the leader was that brought them to where -- the point they are. There is a very, very strong leadership team in Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi and in Majority Leader-to be, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. They know it's a winning team. They know it's a winning team that got them to where they are now, and it's a winning team that's going to be elected in January.

BREWER: All right, then, let me ask you both about this. I know that there's a rivalry between her and Steny Hoyer. They seem to have come out in this news conference that you're seeing now and made nice. There are some personality clashes between her and Representative Jane Harman [D-CA], who's on the Intelligence Committee. She's in line to become the chairperson there, and there's some talk that maybe Pelosi won't name Harman to that chair position. Are her personal feelings getting in the way of effective leadership, do you think, Debbie?

DINGELL: I think she's going to be a strong leader. I think she's got some strong feelings. I don't know what's going to happen in that particular race, but I think she got Democrats to where she's going to be. And I think she wants to retain that Democratic majority, and she's a smart, tough cookie and is going to make the decisions she needs to do to keep Democrats in the majority more than two years.

BREWER: And -- and, Brad, do you see that there is a difference between the men-run leadership posts? I mean, are they more capable of taking personality clashes, setting them aside, and saying, "In order for me to get to point A -- from point A to point B, I've got to set aside my personal feelings towards this guy"?

BLAKEMAN: There's no difference between the leadership that a man or a woman would take in this -- in this position. I think the key to Nancy Pelosi's success in the future is going to be the ability to lead her party, the ability to forget her personal views, and do what's in the best interest of her party and the Congress as a whole. And, if she's able to do that -- because, look, the Democrats had a great victory a week ago Tuesday, but the message is that there are a lot of conservative Democrats who were elected, and she's going to have to deal with that. It's a party that not necessarily believes in what Pelosi believes in, so she's going to have to forget her personal beliefs and do what's in the best interest of the -- of her party.

From the 2 p.m. ET hour of the November 18 edition of MSNBC Live:

BREWER: I want to ask another question about Nancy Pelosi, and I want you guys not to be politically correct for a minute. I want you to be honest about how you really feel. Nancy Pelosi won the leadership position when the Democrats were in the minority. Now, she -- in this role, it's a completely different -- number one, it's historic, because it puts a woman third in line now to the president after the vice president. I remember interviewing Gerald Ford a few years ago, and I asked him: "Did you ever dream of being a president?" He said, "No, it was purely by accident. When I got named to Spiro Agnew's position as vice president, even then I had no idea I was going to be the president." When you have a position that comes upon you accidentally, does it change the way people view you in that leadership position, especially because you're a woman in line for the presidency? Mark, what do you think?

WALSH: Well, you're, first of all, you're asking a theoretical --

BREWER: Right.

WALSH: -- so, I will say a non-politically correct answer because it's a straight theoretical, but I believe Nancy Pelosi, in her heart of hearts, thinks she'd probably could be a darn good president; otherwise, she wouldn't try to achieve a position where, in fact, she could be president, number one. Number two, if she became a, quote, "accidental president," if the scenario that you're talking about came to be, well, I think you should ask Gerald Ford what it was like to be sort of a interim president. In fact, he was the only president to serve who was never elected, and I think that's sort of a weird kind of cloud over him. I think Nancy Pelosi is kind of not thinking about these types of theoreticals right now. She's trying to, really trying to do a good job in her first couple of weeks in office.

BREWER: Joe, what do you think? Do you think it changes things to have a woman in that kind of a leadership position?

JOSEPH WATKINS (Republican strategist): No, I think it's historic, and I think Nancy Pelosi, of course, has her hands full just trying to be speaker of the House. I mean, she doesn't really start her duties until January but, as it is, in her very first opportunity for leadership, she had a crushing defeat. And, that's no reflection on what she'll do over the long term, but certainly, it doesn't really -- it's not the way, I'm sure, that she would wish to start. She put a brave face on things after Murtha was soundly defeated by Steny Hoyer --

WALSH: Crushing defeat --

WATKINS: -- but, think about what happened to Murtha earlier in the week when those TV things came out about Murtha 26 years ago. Not done by Republicans by the way --

BREWER: Yeah.

WATKINS: -- done by Democrats.

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