The day after Republicans received their electoral “thumpin’,” President Bush tried his hand at a bit of partisan humor: He offered to send Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “the names of some Republican interior decorators who can help her pick out the new drapes in her new offices.”

Sarah Royce

While not a career-crusher like Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) botched joke about troops in Iraq, most agreed the comment was in poor taste. Considering Pelosi is the first female speaker of the house in a country that has yet to see a female president or Senate leader, one would think Bush could have come up with classier way to welcome the woman third in line to the presidency. But at the end of the day, I was too pleased about the thumpin’ to be particularly riled.

I had almost forgotten about the joke until I opened up this month’s issue of Vanity Fair. Inside was an article about America’s fallen sweetheart, Katie Couric. In addition to some astute observations about the CBS Evening News’s feeble ratings, there were six small photographs of Couric in different anchor attire, each labeled with cutesy captions like “Sexy-Librarian Katie” and “Desperate Housewives Katie.”

As I read through the article, I realized even the shrewdest comments author James Wolcott made about Couric’s journalistic failings were peppered with chauvinististic humor. Wolcott refers to Couric as a “damsel in distress” and calls for “a grown-up” to “step in and play Project Runway headmaster before anyone gets hurt.” Wolcott wraps up the piece with an assessment of Couric’s identity crisis: “Katie Couric is caught in a tug-of-war between her serious journalistic side and the girlie side that wants to be everybody’s darling. It’s the girlie side that needs to go.”

Was Wolcott implying that hard-hitting journalism is to man as fluffy journalism is to woman?

Would President Bush have commented on Dennis Hastert’s interior decorating tastes? Would Vanity Fair have obsessed over Bob Shieffer’s fall fashion? Of course not.

Still, even Couric is second banana to the poster child for feminine scrutiny, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) Endless commentary on her different color pantsuits and on-again-off-again maiden name are all the rage as the 2008 election approaches. CNN even conducted a poll to gauge voters’ views on Hillary – based on the inclusion of “Rodham” in her name.

From the president’s drapery comment to the hype over Katie Couric’s clothing to the fuss over Clinton’s maiden name, it’s all embarrassingly obsolete. Sadly, although we’d like to believe otherwise, the stereotype of woman as homemaker/decorator/fashion-maven is still alive and well, – even for America’s most powerful politicians and journalists.

So what is the correct formula for a powerful woman today? Apparently it’s not America’s sweetheart. But the ambitious careerwoman image hasn’t really worked for Clinton either, who is repeatedly accused of being robotic and “hard to get to know.”

When looking at Couric and Clinton, both at the top of their respective games, the plight of the powerful woman becomes clear: Couric shows too much and Clinton shows too little. Couric is too feminine and Clinton isn’t feminine enough. Couric has been asked to mask the truth about her girly self, while Clinton’s critics wish she would open up.

Image is important for today’s powerful women. A recent study by the White House Project found that “Women candidates must avoid appearing too casual or too glamorous, as those images undermine their credibility in voters’ minds.” So which do we want, America? The skirt-wearing Couric or the pant-suited Clinton? And more importantly, why does it matter?

If the American public is going to take issue with these women, at least let it be for competence as opposed to cosmetics. Let’s not have the criticism undermined by juvenile jeers like “Katie Couric is too girly!”.

And love her or hate her, there is no denying Clinton did a fine job with her first term as senator. But if you still cringe when her name is tossed out as a potential presidential candidate, at least make sure it’s for the right reasons. Be sure that gut-instinct is not just residual resentment that Hill didn’t leave Bill after his rendezvous in the Oval Office.

Clinton’s choice to “stand by her man” is not indicative of her ability to lead the country, and neither is her choice to wear pantsuits nor keep Rodham in her name – just like Couric’s outfits and sweet attitude are not indicative of her journalistic talents. While it may be difficult for the American public to distill legitimate criticism from lingering stereotypes, it’s important we ditch the grudge and look at these women for their skills as opposed to their style.

Whitney Dibo is a Daily associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at wdibo@umich.edu.

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