On Covering Women in Politics

It’s a fascinating time to be a woman covering American politics. For the first time in history, several women were major contenders for this year’s Democratic presidential nomination, and one is well-positioned to become the first woman vice president. The first woman House Speaker regained her position in 2019 and has been the most significant foil to, and a thorn in the side of, President Trump. And ever since 2016, women have been running for and winning political office in unprecedented numbers—powered by a historic wave of women’s political activism.

But covering women in politics can be fraught, even—or perhaps especially—for female reporters. For example, I always get a few angry emails when I describe a woman’s appearance, clothes or manner. An idea has taken hold that it’s inherently sexist to describe these things. I think that’s ridiculous: all politicians put an immense amount of effort into the way they present themselves, visually and otherwise, and women are no different. As a feature writer, it’s my job to give readers a sense of the whole person, and appearances are a huge part of the way voters perceive candidates. There is absolutely a history of trivializing women in public life by focusing only on their appearance, or by critiquing their appearance in sexist terms. But studies have shown that, contrary to popular myth, women pols’ clothes do not receive more scrutiny than men’s do, and that non-pejorative descriptions of their appearance don’t prejudice voters against women candidates.

The bigger point is that we have to hold powerful women accountable and subject them to tough scrutiny the same way we do powerful men. Just as we routinely reject male politicians’ baseless accusations of bias, we should reject women politicians’ attempts to cry sexism to discredit reporting they don’t like, while also being open to good-faith critiques of our potential blind spots. But there can be a fine line between observing the ways the public judges politicians and indulging in sexist judgments ourselves. Consider the recent controversy around Nancy Pelosi’s visit to a hair salon. On the one hand, no politician ought to abuse her position to break the rules, or act as if she’s not subject to the rules that apply to everyone else. On the other hand, as someone who literally wrote the book about Pelosi, I can attest that the level of scrutiny applied to her lifestyle and personal choices is insanely disproportionate to their importance. Remember when she “demanded” a military jet to fly her to her district when she became Speaker in 2007, and it was a major story for days, even though the male Speaker who preceded her enjoyed the same perk? Probably not—it was a very stupid story! Yet I can guarantee you that if you surveyed a group of ordinary voters today, the hair salon would come up long before any policy position or accomplishment of Pelosi’s long career in public office.

This, of course, is what we’re always trying to do as political reporters: to understand the electorate without necessarily condoning its judgments. In a political arena that’s still 75% male, that’s always going to be a challenge. But as more and more women seek political power, it’s a good challenge to have.

Molly Ball, TIME‘s National Political Correspondent, and author of the New York Times Bestseller Pelosi