On Campaign Trail, Missteps on Gender
February 23, 2014
On Campaign Trail, Missteps on Gender, New York Times Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan – KATHA POLLITT’s judgment, on Twitter, was harsh. The feminist writer observed: “NYT mag: First Hillary as giant bald fleshball, now ‘Can Wendy Davis Have It All?’ Sexist much?”
Her reference was to two recent cover stories on female politicians in The New York Times Magazine: one about Hillary Rodham Clinton in January; the other, last weekend, about Wendy Davis, the Texas state senator and rising star in Democratic politics, now running for governor.
Both articles have been flash points for media criticism on gender issues. In The New Republic last week, Rebecca Traister was incisive, writing: “There is no accounting of female professional achievement that does not also add up the raw data on personal, familial effort; there is no admiration that is not instantly accompanied by interrogation: How does she do it? No. Really. How does she do it?”
Times readers, too, were critical. Jeanne Pitz of Leola, Pa., wrote: “Excuse me, but your cover of Hillary Clinton as a planet was bad enough, but this time, you are using a huge, unflattering photo of Wendy Davis of Texas, with the stupid comment: Can she have it all? Women are offended because you would NEVER ask that of a male candidate.”
The criticism makes me wonder why the treatment of a woman politician often seems so hard to get right, especially when the article’s presentation — illustration, photographs, headlines — is added in.
In each of these cases, some criticism was warranted. I did not find the Clinton cover illustration sexist but simply bizarre, lacking the sophisticated execution one expects from The Times Magazine. The Amy Chozick article it illustrated was an intriguing idea, exploring all the connections in the “Planet Hillary” universe.
The Wendy Davis article presents a different, more serious question: When an article sets out to examine gender bias, how can it avoid perpetuating that bias along the way? Despite its well-intentioned efforts, this piece managed to trip over a double standard with its detailed examination of Ms. Davis’s biography, including her role in raising her two daughters.
For many women, this relentless second-guessing hits hard and cuts deep. We take it personally, for good reason: In our society, there may be no more damaging wound than being found wanting in the good-mother department — and no career achievement can salve it.
Beginning the reader’s experience with the outdated “Have It All” headline didn’t help, nor did the subheadline: “A Texas-Size Tale of Ambition, Motherhood and Political Mythmaking,” which comes close to suggesting that Ms. Davis is spinning a big lie. Together, they curdle the piece that follows. A description in the second paragraph of Ms. Davis’s “fitted black dress and high heels” and her omnipresent half smile does little to ease the reader’s suspicions.
Lauren Kern, a deputy magazine editor, explained that the headline purposely used “a charged phrase” to convey that the story would focus on gender politics.