In the days after the historical 2021 inauguration, young women and girls all over the country, including myself, scanned headlines for updates on the monumental breakthrough of Kamala Harris becoming the first female vice president.
We were inspired by her bravery and looking for coverage of this historic moment for women. Instead, we were met with headlines about her Inauguration Day outfit.
At first, I had no obvious complaint with this coverage. The clothes worn by the women who attended the inauguration were impressive and notable. As fashion became the major focus in reports from the media, an ocean of polls, criticisms and commentary on the new VP’s outfit appeared in many newspapers and on trusted journalism websites.
Where was the commentary and interest in her work and plans for our country’s future?
Top-tier news platforms cast a shadow on the importance of Harris’ position as vice president by consistently prioritizing her wardrobe over substance. By commenting solely on a woman’s appearance, attention was moved from important and significant milestones for our country, to the color of her coat.
While there were plenty of articles on Biden’s first hours as president, some reports seemed to be stuck on Harris’ coat choice.
“If she and Mr. Biden were planning to use their first 100 days to put a new stimulus plan into action, she was using her first actual day to put her wardrobe where their words were,” according to one report in the New York Times posted Jan. 20.
I consider that type of judgment to be a common occurrence for women in roles of leadership.
In addition to the constant commentary on women’s clothing choices, I feel there is a lasting uncertainty of a woman’s capability in a position of power. Women are questioned about their gender or the impact of their maternal instincts on their work and decision-making.
This behavior by journalists is unprofessional, inappropriate and not a true reflection of the progression in gender equality we have seen in the United States. Political and professional opinions on women in positions of power should not focus on their wardrobe, but instead on their actions and accomplishments.
According to the National Education Union, 66% of female students and 37% of male students in high schools have been targets or witnesses of sexist language in school. Thirty-six percent of female students report having been treated differently. The teenage population is bombarded with expectations and gendered attitudes towards women, oftentimes discouraging American adolescents from pursuing career opportunities in political or governmental fields. Related stereotypes are repeatedly reinforced through course curriculums, textbooks and classroom environments.
I wonder what would the media coverage of today have focused on had it been the inauguration of one of our Founding Fathers? Would people have commented on George Washington’s wig or coat? He likely would have been showered with praise on his role as a visionary and a heroic leader toward independence and freedom for our country. After Barack Obama’s inauguration as the first Black president, the press discussed his inauguration speech and his role in history, no one noted whether his coat was the best color for him.
It is crucial to combat gender stereotypes and put forward appropriate images of women where they begin: early classroom interactions, portrayals in the media, music and film.
There is nothing wrong with covering the fashion of a major event, but there is an issue when the news coverage of men and women is unequal and does not represent women’s work fairly. As Harris breaks the glass ceiling by assuming this powerful position, a young girl looking up to her needs to see herself in our vice president’s intelligence and success, not simply envision herself in the clothes Harris wore.
Journalists need to report on the bigger picture and cover women in a more appropriate and equitable fashion. She’ll be watching.
Gillian Reynolds, of Corte Madera, is a student at Redwood High School.