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Style or Sexism? Female Leaders Face Focus on Appearance

  • Associated Press

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, and British Prime Minister Theresa May walk on the red carpet during a military welcoming ceremony at the chancellery in Berlin Wednesday, July 20, 2016, on May's first foreign trip after being named British Prime Mi

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, and British Prime Minister Theresa May walk on the red carpet during a military welcoming ceremony at the chancellery in Berlin Wednesday, July 20, 2016, on May's first foreign trip after being named British Prime Mi

For Margaret Thatcher, it was handbags. For Theresa May, it's shoes.

The new British prime minister likes to wear boldly patterned kitten heels, and the media is fascinated. May's footwear has been analyzed, photographed and satirized. Photojournalists have captured her shoes in close-up alongside the stilettos of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the wedge heels of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The Sun tabloid greeted May's victory in Britain's Conservative leadership race with a front-page image of her leopard-print shoes and the headline "Heel, boys."

Dozens of countries around the world have had women at the helm, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, Norway, Denmark, Liberia and Canada. But female leaders are still scrutinized as much for style as for substance, and invariably compared to one another - a sign they are considered exceptions, rather than the rule.

"It's easy to laugh off, but it trivializes the women," said Jessica Smith, a doctoral researcher at Birkbeck, University of London who studies gender and political leadership.

Smith pointed out that May's meeting with Sturgeon after Britain's European Union referendum came at "a crisis point for Scottish-English relations, an incredibly important point, and if we just talk about what shoes the women are wearing, that sort of undermines any sort of message."

May is hardly the only female politician to draw comment for her outfits - think of Hillary Clinton's previous fondness for trouser suits or Merkel's array of brightly colored blazers.

And, in Britain, sooner or later the comparisons get around to Thatcher.

Britain's first female leader stamped her imprint on the country with her free-market policies, and played a global role in the final years of the Cold War. Britain's Conservatives remain in her thrall, 26 years after she left office and three years after her death.

May - the U.K.'s second female prime minister - draws endless Thatcher comparisons. In newspapers, she's "the new Maggie," ''Maggie II" and "Maggie May." The Times of London said May's first appearance at prime minister's question time was "pure, vintage Maggie." Its editorial cartoon showed May clobbering opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn with a Thatcher-esque black handbag.

The Thatcher effect is not limited to the U.K. Both Merkel and U.S. Democrat presidential contender Clinton have been called an "Iron Lady," Thatcher's nickname.

Lynne Featherstone, a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, thinks the comparisons are understandable, because "women who make it to the top have similar qualities."

"To be a woman in politics ... you tend to have to be better than average," she said. "You don't get there because you were at school with some bloke. The same network isn't there that's always helped men throughout history. So the women who make it into politics and then go up are generally pretty formidable. And those who make it to the very top are a phenomenal force."

The ascent of forceful politicians like Merkel and May shows women can sometimes smash the glass ceiling to a country's highest office. Once there, though, some think they still face a double standard.

Many feminists saw sexism at work in the debate over comments by Conservative lawmaker Andrea Leadsom, May's rival for the party leadership, who suggested that being a mother made her a better leader than the childless May because it "means you have a very real stake in the future of our country."

Male politicians' parental status has rarely been an issue in election campaigns.

Others wince at the endless fascination with female politicians' appearance.

The Sun's fashion editor opined on May's first day in office that the prime minister looked "approachable, not stuffy" in a collarless Amanda Wakeley coat, "quirky" shoes and "edgy chain necklace."

Her predecessor David Cameron's blue suits and black brogues did not get the same treatment.

The Metro newspaper made the point neatly by reversing the tables, describing the prime minister's husband in the sort of language often applied to first ladies: "Stepping into the limelight as First Man, Philip May showcased a sexy navy suit with a flourish of pinstripe."

May recently told the Daily Telegraph newspaper that "I have grown used to the focus on my clothes and my shoes." She said she likes to dress soberly and "add a little bit of interest with footwear."

Rosie Campbell, a Birkbeck professor who studies gender and politics, said May is one of a number of female politicians who have used their clothing cleverly, to send subtle signals of authority.

Thatcher became so associated with her no-nonsense handbags that it spawned a verb - to be "handbagged" is to be berated forcefully.

"We always think it's a bit negative when women's clothes are scrutinized - and mostly it can be," Campbell said. "But I also think women use their dress - think about (former U.S. Secretary of State) Madeleine Albright and all her different brooches. Sometimes it can be a way of sending political messages."

FILE - Former Secretary of State Albright Addresses Obama's Foreign Policy

FILE - Former Secretary of State Albright Addresses Obama's Foreign Policy

She noted that May wore bold, leopard-patterned shoes when she entered 10 Downing St. for the first time. "Did she put those on thinking that she was signaling something: I mean business?"

Unlike Thatcher, who once said "I owe nothing to women's lib" and had few women in her government, May has been photographed in a "This is what a feminist looks like" T-shirt, and has worked hard to increase the number of women in the Conservative Party. She appointed women to senior roles in her Cabinet, including the home secretary, in charge of borders and security.

Women make up about 30 percent of Britain's House of Commons, and about 20 percent of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Some feminist campaigners say the focus on appearance will only change when there are as many women as men at all levels of politics.

"It is about numbers," said Frances Saunders, founder of 50:50 Parliament, a group that seeks a better gender balance in British politics. "The more women we have in there, the less noticeable it would be. I think we'd all get rather bored commenting on their clothes."