Why Hillary Clinton should keep wearing bright pink jackets


Hillary Rodham Clinton on the cover of People magazine. (People)

If former secretary of state Hillary Clinton decides to make a second run at the White House, then her political strategists and advisers should take a gander at a new report called “Keys to Elected Office: The Essential Guide for Women,” which looks at all the challenges and opportunities she would face trying to break what she called “that highest, hardest glass ceiling in American politics,” in the new edition of People magazine.

And she should probably stock up on bright jackets.

The 40-page election guide, released by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, comes as not only Clinton is considering run, but as a crop of women gubernatorial candidates across the country look to increase the number of women with the top job in statehouses across the country, a count which now stands at five.

Based on data gathered over the last 15 years from the campaigns of every woman to run for governor, the report suggests that, yes, women face gender specific challenges, but women also have gender specific advantages.

Need evidence of a gender specific challenge?  In that People  article, Clinton got this question:

“Do you have a hair strategy for 2016?”

Clinton answered this way: “I’m at an age where I can pretty much do what I want: Here I am, whether you like my hair or not.”

The former senator from New York is right.  She can do what she wants, but it is a certainty that the choices she makes — about clothes, hair, jewelry — will be scrutinized, written about, commented on, criticized, praised and picked apart.

A campaign manager interviewed for the report put it this way:  “The news would say ‘the candidate appeared before the media in her trademark shapeless skirts’ … they would never say ‘our male opponent appeared in his scruffy wingtips and rumpled shirt.’ ”

So what does this report, which has a “style” section, advise that women do?  While there aren’t any specific hairstyle tips, there’s plenty more:

  • Yep, appearance matters: This is probably the most annoying part of being a woman in the public eye, whether running for office or anchoring the nightly news.  Men can rely on interchangeable and boring dark suits. Women have to have a style. They have to look good, but not too good. The power suit, shoulder pads era is apparently gone.  Sheath dresses and colorful jackets with pants or skirts (and maybe stiletto boots?) are all in. Clothes should be powerful and practical. Allison Lundergan Grimes, up for Senate in Kentucky, has taken to talking about her clothes in stump speeches, using her heels and skirts as a way to poke Sen. Mitch McConnell, but also she is incidentally giving a nod to third wave, Southern feminism. But a warning from Sarah Palin is in order.  Remember when the McCain campaign splurged on Sarah Palin’s style? The takeaway — too much style can seem frivolous for women candidates.
  • Don’t get too personal too early: Women should lead with their professional accomplishments rather than with biography.  In Texas, Wendy Davis, running for governor, did not take this advice, and spent the first months of the year having to clarify the trailer park-to-Harvard Law school story she laid out.  This report suggests that women candidates, who face a tougher challenge in proving that they are boss material, use action-oriented words on Web sites, in campaign literature and in stump speeches. Sounds like a no-brainer.
  • Laugh it up: Despite that old idea that women just aren’t funny, in the often super-serious (and negative) world of campaigning, humor can work for women in campaign ads and it can also be a way for women to avoid going negative, a move that women pay a higher price for. (See Jill Abramson). One focus group attendee, a woman, said to the researchers: “I expect more from a woman than I do a man, because it’s a man’s world and they always bashed, and I think a woman can have more tactfulness to not stoop to a man’s level.” This cycle on the legislative side, we’ve seen Senate candidate Joni Ernst go for humor in her “Squeal” ad (there is at least something memorable, if not LOL funny about talking about castrating a pig in a campaign ad).  And in Michigan, also on the legislative side, GOP Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land also tried humor to rebut the “war on women”:

  • Showcase honesty: There is at least one advantage women have over men on the campaign trail, even if they have to wear a sheath dress to convey it:  Voters give women the edge on honesty and ethics.  It’s called the “virtue advantage.”  It helped Muriel Bowser in her bid against current Mayor Vincent C. Gray. The flip side of this is that, according to the report, “a woman candidate who falls off her political pedestal pays a high price in the loss of voter esteem, especially among women voters who expect her to be different.”  In short, the cost of an ethical lapse is higher for women, which is why character attacks on women can be so much more damaging and so effective. See Monica Wehby.
  • Get out there early: Clinton definitely seems to be taking this approach. The report advises fielding questions from reporters early in the campaign, which Clinton will do with her book tour launch next week. Another suggestion is starting with a listening tour. Also, women candidates should stand up for herself in a debate, if they can get one.  In one-on-one debates against men, women can sometimes gain an edge, as male candidates have to worry about seeming to bully their opponents. In Texas, for instance, sensing an opening, gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis pressed for six debates against her opponent Greg Abbott, but he has agreed to two.
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