Well, fine, you might think, but we all know only women are subjected to this kind of scrutiny; we don't live in a world where men and women are equally judged for their fashion choices. But in fact, there are plenty of examples of coverage of the appearance of men in politics. It's practically a requirement that any profile of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders describe his "unruly hair"; Mitt Romney, and John Edwards before him, frequently had his perfect coif cited as evidence of phoniness. When Paul Ryan was announced as Romney's running mate, his ill-fitting suits and chiseled abs were dual objects of fascination. And then there's Chris Christie's girth, "whose fluctuations garner almost as much attention as the Consumer Price Index," as Hayes and Lawless put it.
This is all anecdotal, but Hayes and Lawless have also sought to examine this question more systematically. In 2010, they examined more than 4,000 articles about congressional races in 350 districts; just 4 percent of the stories, they found, mentioned a candidate's appearance, and women were just as likely as men to be described in such terms.
Name It Change It has now issued an angry response to Hayes and Lawless, demanding to see the full data on which the political scientists' conclusions are based. (The paper based on Hayes and Lawless's study hasn't yet been published, but they wrote a blog post for the Washington Post about their findings.) Among other things, Name It Change It objects to the coverage study's examination of local newspaper articles, on the basis that "there is more sexist coverage in cable TV." Meanwhile, Name It Change It continues to point out instances of what it sees as an unequal focus on women's appearance, most recently decrying the many mentions of Texas state Senator Wendy Davis's pink tennis shoes. (The first line of a Politico story about the male Senator Rand Paul's filibuster in March: "He had no plan, the wrong shoes, and no water.")
Hayes and Lawless's work joins a growing body of political-science research that finds that being female isn't a disadvantage in politics. Voters' opinions of candidates seem to hinge on ideology and party affiliation, not gender, the research has found. In fact, many political consultants these days consider a woman candidate a plus, and Dartmouth researcher Deborah Jordan Brooks has found some evidence that's the case, as I wrote in the May issue of The Atlantic. Brooks, who wants to see more female representation in politics, fears that an emphasis on the obstacles women face when they seek office, in addition to being poorly founded, ends up discouraging them from running.
All this back-and-forth -- I will certainly not call it a catfight -- reminded me of a searing scene in a piece Nora Ephron wrote in 1972 and included in her book Crazy Salad. Ephron joined Gloria Steinem -- one of the founders of the Name It Change It project, and at the time an adviser to Democratic nominee George McGovern -- as she left her Miami hotel and walked to a meeting:
... on the way out of the Doral, Bob Anson, a former Time reporter, who interviewed her for a McGovern profile, says hello.
"At some point I'd like to talk to you about the socks," Gloria says.
"What do you mean?" asks Anson.
"You said in that article that I give him advice about socks and shirts. I don't talk to him about things like that. He listens to men about clothes."
Anson apologizes, claims he had nothing to do with the error, and as we leave the hotel, I suggest to Gloria that such incorrect facts stem from a kind of newsmagazine tidbit madness.
"That's not it," says Gloria. "It's just that if you're a woman, all they can think about your relationship with a politician is that you're either sleeping with him or advising him about clothes." We start walking up Collins Avenue, past lettuce-boycott petitioners and welfare-rights pamphleteers. "It's just so difficult," she says, crying now. I begin babbling -- all the pressures on you, no private life, no sleep, no wonder you're upset. "It's not that," says Gloria. "It's just that they won't take us seriously."
It's important that we don't allow women in politics to be belittled the way Steinem once was, by assuming they're more concerned with fashion or recipes than matters of policy. (Incidentally, Brooks' research finds women politicians aren't judged more negatively than men for crying.) But we have gone from a world in which Hillary Rodham Clinton strove to conform to gender norms by wearing headbands and baking cookies to one where she proudly declares herself a "pantsuit aficionado."
The evidence doesn't support declaring any descriptive writing about female candidates off-limits, and it undermines the credibility of groups like Name It Change It when they see everything through the lens of insidious but invisible biases. Journalists should be scrutinized for whether they're covering women candidates fairly and seriously, but we shouldn't be banned from noticing the carefully managed visual signals candidates of both sexes send. Sometimes, a skirt suit is just a skirt suit.