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To the extent that media coverage expands with and expanding internet, I guess this is relevant...

When Nancy Pelosi became the Speaker of the House in January 2007, women all over the country, and certainly female law students, rejoiced at the long-awaited step forward in gender balancing our society. Her election opened a new door for women, and made a successful political career a more viable option for women in general and female law students in particular. Our cheers have since turned to sighs.

Living in a schoolwork-induced culture bubble, I have heard about one major strategic move Pelosi has made – the proposed end to our involvement in Iraq. Of course, I never heard anyone say “Nancy Pelosi proposed” the Iraq Resolution; the whole thing was billed as a Democratic initiative in general, although the camera focused on Pelosi in the Speaker’s chair.

Yet my bubble has certainly not prevented me from hearing endless commentary on Pelosi’s looks, dress, shoes, hair, and style history in general. I know she changed clothes once because of an ice cream spill. I know her taste in shoes favors the Manolo Blahnik Kidskin Slingback. I know she sports Chanel suits on a regular basis.

I have never once heard similar comments about a male politician. Certainly, no one has woven what shoes a male politician wears into an article describing that man as a “damsel in distress” upon the loss of said shoe, as a Pleasant Morning Buzz blog once did. And, while I admit curiosity on apparel-taste that would extend to John Edwards hypothetical custom Mateo & Massimo’s, even I can see that it is irrelevant to his political position.

Let’s be honest: style matters permeate our culture, and I expect scrutiny of political candidates’ and elected officials’ dress will become more of a concern over time. Appearance can affect politics and the efficacy of one’s leadership – just ask JFK. But whether Pelosi dresses in Chanel, Burberry, or Wal-Mart is relevant only insofar as it affects her ability to interact with people in her political position. It is no more important to talk about her shoes than about John Edwards’. Focusing consistently on these superficial characteristics wastes valuable airtime and newspaper column inches that should be devoted to real policy matters. And Pelosi’s policy is what is important to our country and our lives.

More disturbing is that Pelosi’s style-oriented media-coronation functions as a passive-aggressive assault on her gender. Why talk about her policy when what’s important about women is their appearance? Why bask in the sun of such a milestone when there’s an avenue to ignore and minimize it? Instead, let’s call her a damsel in distress because she lost a shoe during a House evacuation; that will make her sound like a serious politician, a force to be reckoned with in Washington.

If you think the appearance-based discussion itself is not discriminatory, I offer you a nugget: now appearance-based comments about male politicians insult femininity too!

Both John Edwards and Barack Obama are facing scrutiny from their opposition because they are good-looking. Obama gets a swimsuit picture in print and suddenly the scrutiny of his appearance is overwhelming and distasteful to him, as is, I expect, the general discussion of his good-looks. Do you think Nancy Pelosi could say the same thing? Or, would she just find herself insulted in return for being un-feminine?

According to CNN, John Edwards’ enemies insult him by saying he is just too pretty. His good looks are employed as political ammunition against him under the implicit theory that pretty = effeminate = negative. That kind of theory reaches back into the ancient Roman or Greek world, which equated femininity with weakness, corruption, and depravity. We’re actually reverting – becoming more like the old world, where feminine or “improper” men were drastically disfavored and denied political credibility and political power. When one equates femininity with weakness he or she necessarily discredits female politicians and ranks them below the floor of unacceptable males. That is an insurmountable public-eye discrepancy for any female politician, entry-level or Speaker-level.
This rationale completely eliminates women as legitimate holders of political power. If John Edwards is too effeminate to govern, then certainly Nancy Pelosi is, implicitly, too effeminate to govern as well. So let’s talk about her shoes, because she couldn’t possibly have other defining political characteristics people would be interested in.

Sigh.

Female law students, like female political hopefuls, look outward onto an unfriendly profession that doesn’t understand them and rarely accommodates them. We constantly scrutinize and adjust our behavior so that we can function within a male-sculpted profession. We face obstacles that our male counterparts don’t notice, much less understand. For example, try to describe business casual attire for women. Your answer changes based on whether it is business casual for work, business casual for a professional reception, or business casual for a recruiting dinner with a superior. Men will almost certainly wear the same thing to all three.

Judging a woman based on her appearance is a bastion of gender discrimination that society as a whole will fight for a while. Women may see some relief soon – not because they themselves are released from the shackles of physical judgment, but because society is shifting toward judging and presenting men based on their physical characteristics and their attire. But, even if the style-based methodology lingers, why must we subscribe to such a distorted focus and offer Nancy Pelosi, perhaps the greatest female trailblazer since the Suffragist movement, as its figurehead?

Can we stop this trend? Are we, as a culture, capable of saying that we will no longer be blinded by appearance, that we will finally aggrandize the relevant stuff? I hope that we can. Otherwise, my female classmates and I can look forward to a lifetime of spending our mornings thinking about what to put on instead of what to say, about what to avoid wearing instead of what to do, and about being evaluated physically instead of about being evaluated by the quality of our work.

For now, we can just sigh at the stubborn and slow-changing tide of gender imbalance, remembering always that if we rock the anti-discrimination boat too much at once, our canoe dumps us into the water.

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