Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Seen or silenced? More on women speakers and their wardrobes

I'm at work on a book about women and public speaking, and my research is guiding a flood of new ideas across my desk--some in books and articles, some in my inbox from readers. Lately, much of it focuses on wardrobe and women speakers, in part prompted by my recent post comparing Google search results about fashions and policies of two women leaders, UK Home Secretary Theresa May and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Let me share a few of the ideas that are shaping my thinking on the issue:
  • We stare at women, or we don't see them: In this interview from On Being with English professor Joy Ladin comes a unique perspective. Ladin, the first openly transgender professor at an Orthodox Jewish institution, says,  "You know, I think that that's one of the terrible things that we do to girls and women in this culture is that we stare at them. It's also terrible to not be seen. You know, the artifact of femininity, of attractiveness, of what we judge when we judge girls and women beautiful, often, I think, don't feel to girls and women like they're being seen as who they are." You can read the transcript of this program, called Gender and the Syntax of Being, here, and read Ladin's book Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey between Genders.
  • The suit as talisman: With the 50th anniversary of U.S. President John F. Kennedy's assassination upon us, it's Jackie Kennedy's blood-stained pink suit that's the focus of this New York Times article. The suit has been carefully preserved in the U.S. National Archives and will not go on view for another 50 years--a full century after the shooting. From the Times: "When we look at women in public life and their fashion, this suit has particular resonance. Of Jackie Kennedy: 'She certainly understood invisibility and disappearance very deeply, as well as staged appearance,' said the cultural critic Wayne Koestenbaum, author of Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon. 'So the unseen suit is a very poignant and accurate emblem of her contradiction'." This is a suit intended to make her visible to crowds, and its repeated use in television coverage has given it both a nuanced and unexpected power.
  • "Is this why speakers' fashion is so heavily watched?" asked UK rhetoric scholar Layla Claridge. She pointed me to this article in Glamour, in which columnist Dawn Porter looks at female celebrities as role models, and puts ownership of image issues right back on the audience: "We can’t ask them to be something they’re not, just because we can see it. As a society, we put stars on a pedestal, we create the stage, they’re just doing their thing and there are plenty of influences to choose from. We have enough examples of well-behaved women to allow others the freedom to be wild."
  • Rights and the wardrobe are the fascinating combination of issues in Ruthann Robson's book Dressing Constitutionally, which goes as far back as the Tudors and as far forward as your office to look at how we try to regulate appearance and fashion. Robson;s focus is actual laws and regulations, but I wonder what she'd make of this ridiculous law firm memo to its female employees with 163 points on how to dress and speak. Very much looking forward to digging into this one.
  • From the you can't win for losing department: Leigh Honeywell and Cate Huston shared this National Journal article, Reducing the World's Most Powerful Woman to a Dress. It criticizes coverage from another American political paper, Roll Call, titled Somebody spot Janet Yellen some new threads, about the male reporter's view that President Obama's nominee to lead the Federal Reserve had an insufficiently varied wardrobe. Lucia Graves's article notes that "The consensus on Twitter was that such an article would never have been written about a man. Actually it's worse than that. Those stories have been written about men, and they're unfailingly praised for being decisive leaders who don't waste brain power on frivolous things like fashion. Take, for example, Obama, or Mark Zuckerberg, or Steve Jobs." Which she does, quoting favorable coverage for each man, precisely for doing just what Yellen did: wearing the same outfit more than once, in a simple color palette, and not appearing too focused on stylishness. (May, on the other hand, was covered with praise in at least one newspaper for her statement jackets, "rather than choose an anonymous tailored look.") Sigh. Yellen, who was confirmed in her new role last week, makes her opening statement at the hearing in this video: 

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