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Susan Estrich: Are Republican Women Benefiting from ‘The Femininity Factor’?

UCLA study finds that looks matter, but isn't necessarily a positive

Are Republican women politicians more “feminine” than Democratic women politicians?

That’s the conclusion of a new study by UCLA researchers, who found that Republican women are so much more “feminine” that college students were able to accurately predict party affiliation just by looking at the woman.

The “Michele Bachmann” effect, they call it.

Of course, Bachmann did not fare very well in her presidential campaign, although I think that was for reasons having nothing to do with her facial features. Neither did Sarah Palin, whom most men I know (but fewer women) consider to be very attractive.

The authors also point out that being feminine isn’t necessarily a positive for women, since studies have found that people tend to think of women as either feminine or competent, but not both.

My own review of the studies, over the past 20 years, suggests that the issue is far more nuanced.

Some years ago, a woman who was passed over for a promotion at a Big Eight accounting firm brought suit for gender discrimination after she was told that changing her hairstyle and dressing in a more feminine style might improve her chances the following year. Her claim that this amounted to sex discrimination was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, which means that no one says things like that anymore, much less writes them down.

But do they think it? Absolutely.

I remember an article from a few years ago in which women CEOs were interviewed, and every one of them, literally, was pictured in pastel colors. Yellow was the hands-down favorite. So cheerful and nonthreatening. For women seeking top positions, the challenge is to appear feminine, but not too feminine; assertive, but not too aggressive; attractive, but not too sexy. My women students openly admit that they dress for interviews like dates, hoping to look their best: makeup, high heels, a well-fitting suit that shows off their figure. And I always tell them to make sure to wear a shirt under the suit jacket. Form fitting, yes. Cleavage, no.

One year, a group of my students went to a local mall, showed pictures of women they had clipped from a magazine to shoppers and asked them which one they thought was a CEO and which a sales clerk. The one who looked like a model was thought to be neither; the gal with the pleasing features and short blond bob was the CEO; the overweight woman was the store clerk. Big surprise.

I also remember a piece done by a conservative activist comparing the women Democrats who appear on television with their Republican counterparts. The writer’s point (helped along by his rather skewed choice of pictures) was how much better looking the Republicans were.

I don’t claim to be a beauty, but I’ve never seen a worse shot of myself. And the fact that many of these women were chosen precisely because of how they look, rather than because of what they know, was entirely ignored. (After all, does anyone really listen to TV? No, they watch.)

I don’t know whether the UCLA students would consider Nancy Pelosi to be feminine. I do. Geraldine Ferraro? Absolutely. Hillary Clinton? Who would even ask that question about a woman who has been a role model for young women of all political persuasions, a woman who is admired around the world?

The fact that serious academics would conduct such a study, and that it would be published in a peer-reviewed journal, gives me pause — and not so much about them (such studies are apparently part of a burgeoning field of research called “social vision,” which is not limited to women’s facial features), but about the fact that we continue to look at leadership this way. The researchers note that it may be that Republican women’s faces are more traditionally pretty because conservatives are more bound by gender stereotyping. Interestingly, they found Democratic men to be more masculine than Republican men, but considered this finding to be “less revealing” for reasons that the news release, at least, did not explain.

The fact that looks play a role in politics is nothing new. John Kennedy won the first televised presidential debate among those watching it, while Richard Nixon won among those listening on the radio. In most presidential elections, the taller candidate wins. But for women especially, the tendency to make judgments based on looks distorts the issues that should govern, creating not simply a glass ceiling but also a mirrored one.

— Best-selling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.

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