We are not supposed to talk about the way women politicians dress. After generations of predominantly male journalists writing with breathless fascination that women don’t look like men, this is a welcome respite. But something drastic is happening.
As more women show up and rise to leadership positions, the changing standards of what leadership really looks like is breaking the mold. Beyond clothes, we’re talking about overturning the male-encoded image of power, those visual cues politicians use to inform our unconscious biases and the basis of most political legitimacy. It seems almost taboo to examine the choices women make in politics for their public image, but if we cannot describe them, we will not be able to codify women as leaders.
Take on the new era of governance under the leadership of New York’s first female governor, Kathy Hochul. Hochul is not a thug like Senator Kyrsten Sinema posing in a denim jacket. It is low-key and remarkable for precisely what it is not: the bloated fraud that preceded it. Instead of donning a windbreaker at press conferences crowded with uniformed men offering obligatory salutes, or heading personally through the snow to get drivers out of their cars, Hochul faced his first weather event. in a dramatic start. In a photo, we see the governor sit(!), dressed in a purple costume, listen(!) to its director of operations, Kathryn Garcia, standing on it(!) physically dominant and wearing a cardigan over a dress, her hair pulled back in a “I’m too busy to disturb” ponytail. This demonstration by the executive – the receptive posture, the apparent attention – was breathtaking and went completely without a note. No one praised his caring attitude or his imposing presence. There was no story on the evening news about how the governor properly delegated to the most qualified person and then made decisions based on his recommendation. The tabloids didn’t get noticed by touting the fact that she didn’t blame New York Mayor Bill de Blasio for something.
The negative space doesn’t scream, but the contrast was deafening.
Hochul’s first speech as governor was equally astonishing in its brevity. Only 11 minutes of straightforward conversation without any verbal branding (“hard New York”) or unsolicited life coaching (“advice to fathers”). She doesn’t view work as performance, and there isn’t a lot of staging to fill the columns, so her Jesuit notion of service and performance goes completely under the radar. But these are qualities that boost morale and attract skilled professionals to government precisely because they feel like they are joining a team, rather than committing to some fucked up fraternity. Hochul’s muted ego is inextricably linked with real skill, not the imaginary kind that can win Emmy Awards, but also covers countless nursing home deaths.
Garcia attacked the convention more directly when she ran for mayor of New York City in the Democratic primary earlier this year. Wearing a red lip, high boots, a leather jacket and what looked like a white V-neck one would find in a six-pack Hanes, she gifted a sexy outlaw in one of his advertisements for the mayor. Throughout the campaign, she mixed the vibe of the biker chick with more traditional color changes, costumes and high heels, her glasses up on her head, always ready. This is the candidate widely recognized as the most competent, coming just behind. And she didn’t hesitate to talk about her clothes, either. Describing how, as sanitation commissioner, she adapted her work jacket to her size, she said: “Are we going to pretend that I was not a woman? Well, yes, in fact, women have modernized into an artificial aesthetic since they ditched the crinoline and put on shoulder pads. But here’s a mayoral candidate, in the same interview, talking about how she wears high heels to communicate respect for her staff: “It was important that I always looked professional, because they felt that it was reflected on them. The respect of others! What a crazy idea, that leadership – in the absence of any chest pounding – could also include a thoughtful discussion of humility and not be seen as somewhat weak or insignificant. Garcia was neither and used a range of imagery to communicate thoughtfulness, freshness, and knowing your cold shit as basic qualities for the mayor.
The other main candidates for mayor have also challenged the landscape. Maya Wiley, who placed third in the Democratic primary, campaigned with a crown of salt and pepper braids – a fact that deserves her own think tank in the “things black women face” category – and wore jeans as often as a costume. And who can forget Dianne Morales in her stunning black turtlenecks? With Leticia James, the state’s first black woman and attorney general, now candidate for governor, we’ll see a field where neither of the top two candidates looks or acts like any of the previous people.
Our visual understanding of executive power is interchangeable with masculinity – the suit and tie – leaving women to look like a cheap knockoff or, worse, impostors. Even though we have accepted women as legislators in collective bodies, where they exercise power in accordance with female attributes like communication and collaboration, they still struggle to be elected to leadership positions. There have never been any female presidents and only 45 female governors. “I just don’t think she has a presidential look” is something a man in a suit once might have said, despite being the least qualified candidate for a position who has ever lived.
The problem is, the men paraded in a costume that defined power for so long that they can get away with being bad at their actual jobs as long as they seem to be playing the part. It’s instant authority that legitimizes any idiot who can find their way to a men’s fashion house. If we do not want them to continue to dominate public life, we must recognize the narrative of the power that women leaders communicate through their image. That doesn’t mean re-injecting sexism into the media coverage or constantly asking them questions about their clothes. But if we don’t notice how women are redefining what executive power looks like – and therefore means – it will remain de facto masculine.