by Betty Spence

On the Dec. 19 edition of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” Chris Matthews used language that reveals a troubling bias against women — one that is all too common in the media and is conveyed by the subtle weapon of word choice.

It occurred during a segment about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, which he led off by saying she “may be the frontrunner for the Democrats in 2008 … but she is still playing it coy.”

Webster defines coy as “reluctance to make a definite commitment,” but the first definition, and certainly the connotation, is “cute, coquettish.” Coy is a diminutive, rarely applied to men.

However, this was but a prelude to Matthews’ linguistic disparagement. He then replayed Meredith Vieira’s “Today Show” interview where the Senator called the decision to run an “intensely personal” one she’d make in the new year. When Vieira pressed Clinton, she added, “I’m very honored that people are urging me to run and saying they want to sign up. Yet at the end of the day, I want to be sure that my decision is right for me, for my family, for my party, for my country.”

Cut back to Matthews, who asked, “When is a politician like Hillary Clinton or anyone else going to admit they have the ‘A’ word, ambition, and stop with this coy thing … and just like a striptease … saying she’s flattered by all the attention?”

Striptease?

This is how people talk about women. With lightning speed, Matthews had sexualized the conversation via an out-of-context image. Why? It doesn’t take an analyst to figure it out: a woman in the world’s most powerful position — now that’s scary; but a stripper, well, we can handle that.

Most Americans are still uncomfortable with the idea of a woman president, and really uncomfortable with the ideation of that powerful woman in Sen. Clinton. So Matthews set her up as the frontrunner, then tripped her.

As founder and president of Equal Voice, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization challenging the stereotypes about women leaders, I pay a lot of attention to how people talk about women, especially in the media. Like how women and men are judged differently: “aggressive” when applied to men means energetic, dynamic, shrewd; for woman, it means combative, belligerent, hostile.

In America, a profound ambivalence persists about powerful women, because in many quarters a woman’s role is thought to be mother and keeper of the kitchen table. Those who prefer women in traditional roles may react negatively — consciously or unconsciously — to women in roles of authority. As a result, we are missing out on what women can bring to the larger table — in Washington, in our statehouses, in executive boardrooms.

There’s a term for the way the media deals with women in powerful positions: “skirtiny,” a severe scrutiny harsher than what men experience — one that focuses on hair, hemlines, and husbands and lies in wait for mistakes. In November, when the spotlight hit Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, her Armani suits came front and center; then came days of scathing scrutiny of her handling of her party’s leadership struggles. Little attention went to the other party’s men-only, but equally noteworthy, power scramble.

The day before Pelosi was elected first female speaker of the House, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution sought expert fashion advice for the woman who is now third in line for the presidency. Is it progress when a news story includes a quote about how sexist it is to concentrate on women’s appearances — but then continues to focus the lens?

It’s an old control game, objectifying women, now expanded to putting down women with power and influence in public and private sectors alike. Think back to Martha Stewart’s fall from grace: The knitted jailhouse shawl may have gotten more camera than Enron’s Ken Lay at the time. And in her recent memoir, “Tough Choices,” Carly Fiorina (named Forbes and Fortune’s most powerful woman in business as Hewlett-Packard’s CEO) acknowledges, “From the first day of my hiring until the last day of my firing, both the language and the intensity of the coverage were different for me than any other CEO. It was more personal … about my physical appearance, my dress, my hair, my shoes.”

When style eclipses substance — the real accomplishments of a woman leader — there’s a subtext that undermines her rightness in the role. Mother may have taught that words will never hurt you, but that was before the Information Age. How we talk about women looms as a pernicious barrier to women’s success.

Fiorina remarks that non-mainstream media resorted to calling her bimbo and bitch, and says, “It is undeniable that the words spoken and written about me made my life and my job infinitely more difficult.”

Women successfully shed the bustles that hampered our movement at the turn of the last century, but in the early 21st century, the way women are talked about attires us in a symbolic bustle that handicaps our running businesses — or running for highest office.

Women have the education, the experience, the competence, the courage, and the right to succeed in leadership positions and are breaking the mold daily by taking on new roles. It’s time to challenge the language and images that work against us to diminish our power — because we are powerful beyond all measure now, and 2007 is our time to lead.

Betty Spence, Ph.D., is the founder and president of Equal Voice and president of the National Association for Female Executives.

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  • Gina January 17, 2007 at 3:48 pm

    I remember when early articles on Condoleeza Rice obsessed about her dress size, etc. Now, especially in the past few days, as Rice plays tough with a variety of players in the Middle East, I think very few people sexualize or “feminize” her. Although I vehemently disagree with her politics, her ease in authority does a heck of a lot for women.
    What I’m basically saying is that the only way America and the media truly learn is through experience. It will be a tough battle for Hillary, but if she makes it, every day will be a learning moment …
    The question might remain, though, if the only way women can exert authority is by masculinizing themselves. Rice, in this sense, is in the line of Margaret Thatcher and others who refuse to show any “feminine” qualities in public.
    I’ll know we’ve arrived, though, when we allow a male president to show emotion without questioning his strength.

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  • eric January 17, 2007 at 12:31 pm

    I agree completely with Betty Spence that Chris Matthews’ comments were sexist and inappropriate.Worse yet, I doubt that he was even aware of what he was doing. Matthews, arguably, is one of the most liberal political pundits on television,and so I have no reason to believe that he was intentionally trying to disparage Sen. Clinton’s presidential bid because she is a woman. Rather I think that like too many men, whether famous or not, he was oblivious to the subtext of his comments. The battle to get men, and women as well, to understand better the symbolic implications of language is a never ending one.

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