Today’s big So What: It cost $150,000 to dress Republican Sarah Palin. It is all about image in politics.
A killer presidential candidate needs killer clothes. Democrat Hillary Clinton wore cheesy polyester pantsuits. If she shelled out a few bucks on something you couldn’t get at Kmart, she might be president...
Women are supposed to look good and smell nice. The reason that Democrat John Edwards was mocked for his $400 haircuts was it was a girlish vanity. The “I Feel Pretty” video aims at his masculinity. The song is sung by a girl.
A double standard? You betcha.
To my mind, the burden being put on Gov. Palin is just an extreme version of the Jespersen dilemma. Jespersen was a female bartender working for Harrah's who was forced, under new grooming regulations, to wear makeup to her job. This imposed an additional hurdle to her entering the workforce: though men also had grooming requirements, they were generally less expensive to maintain than those given to women. In such a case, women are being penalized upon entering the workforce solely for being women: that second X chromosome means that they can be required to shell out more as a threshold requirement before they are allowed to compete for the same job men are going after. Likewise, Gov. Palin, because she's a woman, has to spend a lot more time and resources on her attire and appearance before she can compete as an equal in the political arena.
From a feminist perspective (which wants Gov. Palin to lose, but not because she is hobbled from competing as a woman), there are two angles of attack on this. On the one hand, you could indict the norms of appearance that require so much more out of women than men. Alternatively, one could (perhaps provisionally) accept those norms, and demand offsets so that the costs of their enforcement do not fall on women but on some other party. For example, if Harrah's Casino wants to demand women alter their appearance above and beyond their requirements for men, it could be forced to pay for the difference in value (I imagine if that requirement did exist, the gender-differential would be eliminated quite rapidly).
How it works in cases like this, where nobody is "forcing" Gov. Palin to spend so much on her clothes, but there is a generalized knowledge that if she didn't pay that extra attention, she'd be political toast, is more complicated. But the income tax question gives a hint. Regardless of whether Gov. Palin is correct in asserting that she does not have to pay taxes on her "borrowed" wardrobe is right as a matter of current law, one could argue that creating such an exception, by mitigating the cost of additional clothing (at least on the candidate) would help alleviate some of the burdens our gendered appearance norms currently place on female politicians. It wouldn't eliminate it entirely, as it still would cost more for Parties to run these candidates, but it would at least make a dent. A purist might also feel feminists advocating for such a rule would be capitulating to the legitimacy of the underlying gendered-appearance sentiment, which is what really has to be taken apart for gender equality to be obtained (that was the first approach I outlined). But advocates for this plan might respond that we can't wait for a revolution that might never arrive, and in the meantime provisionally accepting the realities of ingrained sexism, and working to mitigate their impact, is the best that can be hoped for (a Derrick Bell style argument).
All of which goes to show how deeply entrenched patriarchal norms continue to have an impact today, even against the most elite and accomplished female figures.