Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might not know it, but GOP presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann and many other candidates of all political stripes are flipping through her closet of campaign tricks to avoid the biggest double standard of all: the media's treatment of female candidates as fashion mannequins.
In an ironic twist, Clinton, whose wardrobe and hairstyles as first lady were often mocked, has seen her Senate "uniform" of pantsuits and simple hairdos become de rigueur on the campaign trail. [See a slide show of who's in and out for the GOP in 2012.]
"She put herself in a campaign uniform and she basically wore a navy, black, or brown pantsuit for the entire campaign. She did it again when she ran for president," GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway says admiringly. "Instead of covering what she wears, you have to cover what she says."
Bachmann, adds Conway, has adopted Clinton's approach after seeing how the media focused on female candidates' style in recent campaigns. "I thought it was just a miserable experience to watch the coverage of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin," says Conway. "If Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin tried to talk about job creation or optimism, [the media] still covered whether the shoes matched the hair matched the bag." And don't get Conway going about the 2007 coverage of Clinton's cleavage. "Are you kidding?" [See photos of Michele Bachmann.]
By adopting a simple Clintonesque approach, Bachmann has avoided some of the harshest criticism, though now she's been sneered at as "prim" for apparently not being stylish enough.
Former Clinton aide Karen Finney says the criticisms show that "we still have a long way to go, because it just shouldn't matter." Finney adds: "The truth is that in almost every workplace in America, women still face a double standard when it comes to what they wear. Hillary wisely understood that while the preoccupation with her hair, clothes, and makeup was ridiculous and ultimately irrelevant to whether or not she would be a good senator or president, by simplifying her 'uniform' it made it easier for reporters to focus on the substance of what she was saying rather than what she was wearing." [See a collection of political cartoons on the Tea Party.]
Conway calls that "reclaiming precious column inches of coverage."
What's more, she suggests that female candidates should argue with media outlets when coverage veers to fashion and away from the candidate's message. She even offered Bachmann a good line—"I'm running for president, not to be the next Kardashian."
Illustration by Ed Wexler for USN&WR.