We’re not supposed to talk about the way female politicians dress. After generations of mostly male journalists writing with breathless fascination about the fact that women don’t look like men, it’s a welcome reprieve. But something radical is happening.
As more women run for and reach executive positions, the evolving standards for what leadership actually looks like are breaking the mold. Beyond just clothes, we’re talking about upending the male-coded image-making of power, those visual cues politicians use to inform our unconscious biases and the bedrock of most political legitimacy. It feels almost taboo to examine the choices women in politics are making for their public image, but if we can’t describe them, we won’t be able to codify women as leaders.
Take the new era of governance under New York’s first female governor, Kathy Hochul. Hochul isn’t some rogue like Senator Kyrsten Sinema posturing in a denim vest. She’s low-key remarkable precisely for what she’s not: the puffed-up fraud who preceded her. Instead of donning a windbreaker at press conferences thronged by uniformed men offering obligatory salutes, or personally heading out into the snow to pull drivers out of their cars, Hochul dealt with her first weather event in a dramatic departure. In one photo, we see the governor sitting down(!), wearing a mauve suit, listening(!) to her director of operations, Kathryn Garcia, standing over her(!) in a physically dominant position and wearing a cardigan over a dress, her hair pulled back in a “I’m too busy to bother” ponytail. This display by the executive—the receptive posture, the apparent attentiveness—was jaw-dropping and passed completely without note. No one praised her take-charge attitude or commanding presence. There was no story on the evening news about how the governor properly delegated to the most qualified person and then made decisions based on her recommendation. The tabloids didn’t knock themselves out touting the fact that she didn’t preemptively blame New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for something.
Negative space doesn’t scream, but the contrast was deafening.
Hochul’s first speech as governor was similarly stunning for its brevity. Just 11 minutes of straight talk without any verbal branding exercises (“New York tough”) or unsolicited life-coaching (“advice to fathers”). She doesn’t treat the job as a performance, and there isn’t much stagecraft to fill column inches, so her Jesuit notion of service and workmanship fly completely under the radar. But these are qualities that build morale and attract qualified professionals to government precisely because they feel that they’re joining a team, rather than pledging a fucked-up fraternity. Hochul’s muted ego is inextricably linked to real competence, not the imagined kind that may win Emmy Awards but also covers up an untold number of nursing home deaths.
Garcia made a more direct attack on convention when she ran for New York City mayor in the Democratic primary earlier this year. Rocking a red lip, knee-high boots, a leather jacket, and what looked like a white V-neck you’d find in a Hanes six-pack, she offered up a sexy outlaw in one of her commercials for mayor. Throughout the campaign, she mixed up the biker chick vibe with more traditional color-block shifts, suits, and high heels, her glasses pushed up on her head, always at the ready. This was the candidate widely acknowledged as the most competent, who came in a very close second. And she didn’t run away from talking about her clothes, either. Describing how as sanitation commissioner she tailored her work jacket to fit, she put it straight: “Are we gonna pretend like I’m not a woman?” Well, yes, actually, women have been retrofitting themselves into a man-made aesthetic ever since they cast off the crinoline and put on shoulder pads. But here was a mayoral candidate, in the same interview, talking about how she wears high heels to communicate respect for her workforce: “It was important that I always look professional, because they felt that it reflected on them.” Respect for others! What a completely wild idea, that leadership—absent any chest pounding—could also include a thoughtful discussion of humility and not be seen as somehow weak or trivial. Garcia was neither, and used a range of images to communicate thoughtfulness, cool, and knowing your shit cold as the baseline qualities for mayor.
The other top female contenders for mayor also defied the landscape. Maya Wiley, who placed third in the Democratic primary, campaigned in a crown of salt-and-pepper braids—a fact that merits its own think piece in the category of “things Black women have to deal with”—and wore jeans as often as a suit. And who can forget Dianne Morales in her striking black turtlenecks? With Leticia James, the state’s first female and Black attorney general, now running for governor, we’ll see a field where neither of the top two contenders look or act like any of the people who came before.
Our visual understanding of executive power is interchangeable with maleness—the suit and tie—leaving women looking like a cheap imitation or, worse, impostors. Even as we’ve accepted women as legislators in collective bodies, where they exercise power in line with female-coded attributes like communication and collaboration, they still struggle to get elected to executive positions. There have been zero women presidents and only 45 women governors, ever. “I just don’t think she has a presidential look” is a thing a man in a suit once got to say, despite being the least qualified candidate for office who ever lived.
The problem is that men have been parading around in a costume that has defined power for so long that they can get away with being bad at their actual jobs so long as they look the part. It’s instant authority that legitimizes any idiot who can find his way to a Men’s Wearhouse. If we don’t want them to continue to dominate public life, we’ve got to acknowledge the narrative of power women leaders are communicating through their image. That doesn’t mean injecting the sexism back into news coverage or constantly asking them about their clothes. But if we don’t note how women are redefining what executive power looks like—and therefore means—it’ll remain de facto male.