Was Pelosi's clothing really important news?

Public Editor

January 14, 2007|By Paul Moore | Paul Moore,Public Editor

Baltimore native Nancy Pelosi, the first female speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, has received considerable coverage in The Sun - and will continue to be in the spotlight for years to come.

The Sun's Washington bureau has written extensively about her legislative agenda and political career, including her prominent role last week in expressing her party's opposition to President Bush's decision to increase the number of American troops in Iraq. Metro reporters have explored in detail her Baltimore political roots - she is the daughter of former Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. and the sister of former Mayor Thomas L. D'Alesandro III - including a Jan. 6 article about her celebratory return to the Little Italy section of the city where she grew up.

But no article about Pelosi, a California Democrat, has generated as much reader response as Sun fashion reporter Tanika White's Jan. 4 Today section centerpiece examining the House speaker's fashion sense and personal style.

The article, titled "Suited for Politics," contained this description of a recent event Pelosi attended: "Speakers introducing Pelosi spoke in celebratory, grand language: Because of her, the glass ceiling had been shattered. The agenda of politics was being transformed. We are women - we have made it! But there were also quieter conversations appreciating Pelosi for a smaller, but not insignificant achievement: her impeccable taste."

The article goes on to evaluate Pelosi's choice of wardrobe, use of colors and types of jewelry. White interviewed a number of fashion and political experts to determine how Pelosi's appearance is perceived (the consensus is chic and stylish). The story also noted that gender stereotypes have long made it more difficult for women in politics to be taken as seriously as their male counterparts. One of White's points was that today, a politician like Pelosi can maintain a decidedly feminine style and still be taken seriously.

A number of readers questioned the article's relevance.

Chelsea Newhouse: "To equate achieving the highest office ever held by a woman with picking out a nice suit is unacceptable. This would never, ever have been written about a man. ... I am deeply offended as a woman that Speaker Pelosi is consistently subject to this type of scrutiny. I feel that this behavior is a major factor in maintaining the glass (or marble) ceiling that has kept women out of leadership positions in this country."

Regina Brzek: "It's 2007, and a major newspaper still thinks it's relevant to dedicate an entire article to a female politician's clothing. Incredible."

Cheryl Gifford said: "Nancy Pelosi is the first woman Speaker of the House and all you can write about is her fashion sense. Your article minimizes Speaker Pelosi and women everywhere."

From Arlene Cayer: "What a great way to trivialize the woman who is two heartbeats away from the presidency."

These and a number of other reader responses reflected a potent protest against what many perceived as a demeaning, irrelevant story.

Did this article denigrate, minimize or trivialize Pelosi's professional and political achievements?

In my view the article was balanced and legitimate. White and her editors thought Pelosi's fashion sense was notable for two reasons. Politicians are notoriously poor dressers, but Pelosi has already been cited by fashion observers and her peers as just the opposite. And for years, editors say, women in politics were forced to dress more like men in order to be taken seriously.

"I was intrigued by Pelosi's resolve to be feminine and powerful, smart and stylish - and unapologetically so," White said last week. Her article makes the point that women have made the kind of progress in recent years that politics and style are not mutually exclusive. There are many, however, who believe the combination of power and style embodied by some female politicians is nothing new.

It is worth noting that White, who has covered her beat at The Sun for almost three years, has explored both men's and women's fashion. This year, she examined Maryland gubernatorial candidates Robert L . Ehrlich Jr.'s and Martin O'Malley's sense of style. She also wrote about the advent of the NBA's mandatory "professional" dress code for its basketball players and what it says about our culture.

Readers should not expect Sun news articles to describe what Pelosi is wearing when she makes policy decisions and performs her duties as Speaker of the House. That would be ridiculous.

But fashion is an important part of life. What someone wears and how they look makes a statement. I think White's beat reporting is no less relevant than many of the traditional reporting areas.

White says: "The fact is that without exception, all of us wear clothes and shoes and style our hair every day. And until the day comes that we don't do that, fashion will always be of some import - and the way people choose to do so will be newsworthy."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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