Women Politicians in the Media

Finneman, Teri. Press Portrayals of Women Politicians, 1870s-2000s: From “Lunatic” Woodhull to “Polarizing” Palin. New York: Lexington Books, 2015.


All politicians must grapple with their public portrayal and perception. However, the issue of how the media depicts them is a particular problem for female politicians, as Finneman points out in her book. She delineates the history of four historically relevant women politicians, from the first woman to ever run for president in 1872 to the first woman on the Republican ticket as vice president in 2008. Although the exact details of each woman’s life differed, and the media standards of the day affected how each one was portrayed publically, Finneman points out that each of the women she studied faced some of the same challenges, such as a biased media and an undue attention on irrelevant details. Her study helps point out the double standard that all women face in the media, not just politicians.


In 1872, Victoria Woodhull, an ardent feminist, attempted to break the glass ceiling by running in the presidential election. Although she was only 34 at the time of the election, one year shy of the requirements for president, this was surprisingly a non-issue in her election, with virtually no mention of it in any of the information disseminated about her. Instead, the newspapers ran stories personally attacking her for her claim to be clairvoyant and for her sexual history. At the time of her candidacy, Woodhull was living with a man she was not married to, while technically not divorced from her first husband. Free love was one of the tenets of her platform, as Woodhull believed it would allow women to break free of the double standard of the day. Her platform also included such salient points as establishing a minimum wage, abolishing the gold standard, and giving unemployment benefits. However, media portrayal of her almost always ignored these points, emphasizing only her “dangerous” desire for free love and her break with the mainstream feminist movement, trying to prove that not even other women found her appealing. Indeed, Susan B. Anthony had publically denounced Woodhull, as Anthony preferred to focus exclusively on women’s rights, and Woodhull included a broad spectrum of issues in her campaign. Anthony even went so far one time as to turn off the lights on Woodhull as she spoke during a convention. In fact, Anthony’s extreme dedication to the cause of women’s rights lead her to have a tumultuous relationship with various other feminists of the day, including black journalist Ida B Wells, of whom she disapproved for Wells’ choice to get married. However, despite Anthony’s disapproval, Woodhull was endorsed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who saw Woodhull as an opportunity to give the feminist movement more publicity and traction. This did little to boost Wodhull’s public perception, though, as she was viewed abysmally by the majority of US citizens at the time. That is in part due to the drastically subjective coverage of her campaign. Most people published in the newspaper were not trained journalists, and they made no attempt at objectivity, instead editorializing and inserting their own opinion into the conversation. As such, Wodhull was portrayed abjectly, with the media even going so far as to call her “Mrs. Satan.” Her name did not even appear on the ballot, and today she remains largely unknown in the annals of history. Her story serves to illustrate the double standard faced by women when it came to sexual practices, as she was demonized for free love, while the men she had affairs with were largely unscathed. It also shows the effect a biased and negative media can have on public perception of women.


The next woman Finneman focuses on, Jeanette Rankin, was the first woman elected to the House of Representatives, in 1916. Unlike Wodhull, Rankin’s coverage was largely positive, with virtually no negative press coverage during her entire campaign. However, even so, her depiction in the media was highly gendered, with an undue emphasis on her household abilities and her personal appearance. News stories were sure to include details such as, “She was sewing when she said this today” in stories about her political platform (Finneman 63), and there was a veritable outrage over her red hair, which the New York Times called captivating and beautiful, sure to make her a hit with all the male congressmen. Although sexist and irrelevant to her campaign, the media’s focus on Rankin’s personal aspects and perceived femininity served to make her more palatable to the nation at large, softening her campaign’s attack on the patriarchy by portraying her as a traditional, feminine woman who fit in with gender roles of the day, even as she ran for public office. The idea of separate spheres for men and women was still in effect at this time, and by focusing on Rankin’s role in the domestic sphere as a homemaker who could dance and had beautiful hair, the press made the fact that she was not married and running for public office more palatable. The media trying to soften highly educated women to make them more appealing has been seen throughout history, such as with Frances Folsom, the college educated woman who married President Grover Cleveland when he was in office. As with Rankin, the media surrounding Folsom did not focus on her personal qualifications or intelligence, but on the fact that she was giving that all up to be a loving wife to Cleveland, perfectly fitting the idea of what a wife at the time should do.


By the time politician Margaret Chase Smith ran for president in 1964, the media had become more objective, yet she too was portrayed unfairly and sexistly in it. The growing concern with objective journalism during the 60s meant that although journalists no longer inserted their personal opinions into stories, they simply passed along “facts” with no creditable sources, making it easy to oversimplify Smith’s campaign. Although she had served in both the Senate and the House for years, and was a very experienced politician, Smith’s personal qualifications were largely ignored by the press, which instead focused on the idea of “a woman” running for president. By not depicting Smith as an individual and discussing the blanket term of “a woman in the White House,” the media of the day essentially devalued all of Smith’s personal achievements. Newspapers also published quotes from ordinary citizens who said things such as, “Oh, goodness, a woman’s makeup is such that she can’t accept criticism. She’s too sensitive—and I mean any woman is,” or, “Being president is a man’s job” (Finneman 96-97). By prominently publishing the quotes of laymen, the media effectively legitimized their argument to the public. When newspapers did focus on Smith herself, rather than simply a generic woman, they tended to emphasize her clothing and her age, discussing her trademark high heels and speculating if her “advanced age” (66) would prevent her from being an effective president. This undue concern with her personal appearance also served to delegitimize her political accomplishments.


Finally, Finneman covers the coverage of Sarah Palin during the 2008 election, pointing out that much of her perceived ineptitude and inability to be vice president hinged on the way the media depicted her. From the moment John McCain chose Palin as his running mate, newspapers used words such as “novice” and “newcomer” to describe her, focusing on her lack of political experience. Although it was objectively true that Palin had only been governor of Alaska for two years, the media failed to put that in perspective of other vice presidents’ qualifications throughout history, making Palin not an anomaly, but more of a norm. They also focused on her personal appearance and her family drama, as if her ability to be a good mother and woman affected her ability to be a good vice president. Some media outlets also wondered what would happen of her five children if she went to the White House, although nobody commented on what would happen to McCain’s seven children if he won. Although by 2008 the media had become much more objective than it was during Woodhull’s time, and it no longer attempted to delegitimize candidates by directly comparing them to Satan, it still fell into certain sexist molds.


The idea that women belong in a separate sphere and that the success of their family reflects their personal success has been remarkably pervasive, affecting women from Abigail Adams, who was told to not concern herself with men’s affairs, to Eleanor Roosevelt, who emphasized the idea of women helping with “public housekeeping,” to Woodhull, Rankin, Smith, and Palin. Finneman’s analysis of the media depiction of these four women helps point out the common biases and stereotypes that women face in the media.


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