Feminine AND Powerful: Can Women be Both?

Ellie Macmillan-Fox is doing a Master’s in Climate Change: Environment, Science and Policy. She also did her undergraduate degree at King’s in History and International Relations. She has a keen interest in women’s participation in global politics, as well as environmental politics. 

[Photograph from the ongoing United States of America’s Presidential Election, with Democratic Vice Presidential Candidate, Kamala Harris, dressed in a plumb suit. Source]

When Kamala Harris accepted the nomination to be Joe Biden’s running mate on 19th August 2020, she wore a plumb suit. As a Vox article commented at the time, this was an unusually feminine choice when compared to her usual ‘political uniform’ of ‘darker neutral colours’.1

You may be thinking at this point, is this really important and worth talking about? The answer is no, what a female politician chooses to wear really should not be something worth commenting on. Yet it is for two reasons:

Firstly, the appearance of female politicians is commented on much more by the media and public than male politicians.

Secondly, female politicians are very aware of the first reason and as a consequence tend to dress in a way that doesn’t bring too much attention to their clothes or body. Often this means that their outfits are androgynous or have masculine aspects.

Whilst gender is fluid and everyone has both masculine and feminine elements to their personas, female politicians tend to downplay their femininity within their professional setting.

This can probably be traced back for centuries, but a particularly prominent example is Margaret Thatcher. Love her or hate her, she was one of the first incredibly successful female politicians. But how did she work her way up to the top office in Britain? I think a lot can be inferred from her nickname, the ‘Iron Lady’. Before Thatcher, women were seen as incapable of running a country, thus Thatcher had to prove that she was the toughest man in the room in order to be taken seriously as a leader. In order to thrive in a world run by men, she presented herself through her demeanour as a more masculine woman.

A similar case can be made for Hillary Clinton. There is a visible difference between the way that Clinton presented herself during her time as First Lady versus as presidential candidate. As can be seen in the pictures below, First Lady Clinton adopted a longer hairstyle and was unafraid to wear a pink (the colour most closely associated with femininity) suit. Later, when she sought to be the first woman to obtain the highest office in the US, her hair was much shorter and she chose more gender neutral colours, with the only hint of femininity being suggested by her jewellery.

Former Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton, 1995, Source
Former Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton, 2008, Source.

Likewise, Theresa May, the UK’s second female Prime Minister noticeably ‘manned up’ for the job. Her clothing choices became based around more masculine power suits when she entered Downing Street. But perhaps most revealing is the haircut she adopted shortly before the 2017 General Election. Her more feminine bob was replaced by much shorter hair, as if to suggest that she was the ‘man for the job.’2 In fact Angela Merkel and Nicola Sturgeon, two other female political leaders, have opted for similar ‘power’ haircuts to May and Clinton. A Vogue article that explored the haircuts of women in power argued that women in politics often opt for this style because it’s ‘discreet, non-sexual, and it says, “woman able to compete in a man’s world.”’3 In fact in an interview for the article, Dr Pippa Malmgren, George W. Bush’s former Economic Advisor, actually stated you cannot be feminine in the White House because, ‘if you take your sexuality into the room with you, you’re distracting others – you’re not fixing the problem at hand’.4 Of course that was some years ago, but has anything actually changed? Because it seems to me that women in politics still feel the need to present themselves as more masculine, and to dull down their femininity in order to be taken seriously.

Former Prime Minister Theresa May with Former Prime Minister David Cameroon, ca. 2005, Source.
Former Prime Minister Theresa May, 2017, Source.

This does not bode well for Kalama Harris in her bid for the Vice Presidency, especially when considering her opposition is renowned for his sexist scrutiny of women’s appearances. After all, Tump is the man who said of previous Republican candidate, Carly Fiorina, “Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?”5 Hence it is likely that Harris will encounter a lot of criticism about her appearance on her campaign due to her femininity, let alone the overt and systemic racism that persists in society. Will she be able to maintain her feminine appearance, or will she feel that she must resume her muted gender-neutral clothes and cut her hair shorter? Only time will tell.

But there is hope. As she does on many issues, AOC is leading the way for feminine women in power. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is known for her bold and unapologetic red lip. In fact, whilst I was researching for this article, Vogue released a YouTube video of her talking through her red lip beauty routine. In the video, AOC talks convincingly about issues of systemic sexism and homophobia, whilst flawlessly applying winged eyeliner. This alone makes the video compulsive viewing and, in my eyes, proves that she must be Superwoman. But on top of this, she explains how she feels it’s important to share her routine because ‘femininity has power’.6 AOC articulates that “there’s this really false idea that…if your interests are in beauty or fashion that that’s somehow frivolous. But I actually think that these are some of the most substantive decisions we make…” She outlines how she initially stayed away from loud makeup such as glitter eyeshadow out of the fear that she wouldn’t be taken seriously, but actually found that it helped her “feel better” and made her eyes “pop”.7

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, ca. 2017, Source.

After watching the video, I felt incredibly empowered. Women such as AOC give me hope that slowly we are learning to own our femininity rather than dulling it down to please men. Although there’s still a long way to go – and it’s likely that many women and other individuals with non-binary gender identities will be criticised for their appearances in order to pave the way for the rest of us – maybe one day, feminine will be synonymous with powerful.

1 ‘Female politicians are scrutinized for their looks. Kamala Harris is ready to fight back.’ Vox, (https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/8/20/21376852/kamala-harris-dnc-speech-suit-appearance-sexism).

2 ‘Shane Watson: Deconstructing Theresa May’s election haircut’, The Telegraph,

3 ‘Can Good Hair Save The World?’ Vogue, (https://www.vogue.co.uk/article/power-hair-hillary-clinton-theresa-may-hairstyles).

4 Ibid.

5 ‘Female politicians’, Vox.

6 ‘Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Guide to Her Signature Red Lip’, YouTube, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bXqZllqGWGQ).

7 Ibid.

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