Wash Post runs sexist story about White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler’s shoes

Would the Washington Post write a story about Dan Pfeiffer’s “fabulous shoes”?  Doubtful.

But they sure did write one about White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler’s Manolo Blahniks.

The White House counsel, for any who are unaware, is the President’s lawyer. It’s a huge job.

Particularly interesting about the Post story is first that it’s written by a woman – and yes, Virginia, women can write sexist articles too.

The second thing to note is that a lot of the sexist observations in the story are actually quotes from other papers.  But rather than reiterating those quotes to show how absurd they are, the Post clearly found them cute and punny.  Such as the one referring to Ruemmler as a “star litigatrix”?  Get it?  Litigatrix, like dominatrix.  Because she’s a female lawyer and good at her job, so she’s like a mean hooker who beats you with chains while having sex.

Oh the funny!

I’m sometimes of two minds about these kinds of stories, but only sometimes, and only somewhat.  Society does find women’s fashion more interesting than men’s.  It’s why female models are superstars, while male, not so much.  So there’s an understandable tendency for a reporter, especially one who might cover fashion and culture, to want to comment about what women leaders are wearing, moreso than men.  But…

White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler

White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler

I’d argue that the very reason society is more interested in female than male fashion is sexism.  Guys are supposed to be sexy, but they’re not supposed to try to be sexy.  If you try, that’s “gay.”  Guys aren’t “supposed” to have hair or clothes that look like someone put too much thought or effort into them.  Women, however, are not just welcome to spend all day trying to look pretty, they’re expected to.  Thus the reason make-up on women is acceptable (and in some circles expected), but make-up on men is, there’s that word again, “gay.”

Now, you could argue that Ruemmler is daring to be her own woman.  That she doesn’t feel the pressure too look and act like a man in order to succeed in a man’s world.  It’s a point that former Planned Parenthood head Gloria Feldt made to me in reaction to this story this morning:

As a fan of red Stuart Weitzmans myself, I say good for Kathryn Reummler for demonstrating power, smarts, and leadership can come in hot pink stilettos. Just as Hillary proved beyond any doubt that power, smarts, and leadership can come in a turquoise pantsuit as surely as in navy pinstripes, women today are defining our own terms of professional engagement.

But while Ruemmler, like Hillary Clinton and Gloria Feldt, isn’t afraid to embrace her femininity, stories like this are not about embracing self-empowered women like Kathryn Ruemmler.  They’re about belittling them.

And that, at its core, is my problem with articles like this.  While it might be interesting what shoes someone is wearing, if you’re into that kind of thing, the article itself reinforces the larger problem of sexism women face in society.

It’s the same with articles about gay people. We’d complained for years about how newspapers, and TV news, always loved to show photos of drag queens or mostly-naked men in leather, when writing about gay rights.  Now, from the newspaper’s perspective, some gays are drag queens, and some gays do parade around mostly-naked in leather.  But most don’t. And more importantly, the image reinforces a stereotype rather than adding nuance, or insight, to the actual story accompanying it. The photo was chosen to grab the reader, not to further the story.

By using a photo of a drag queen or a leather guy in every single gay-related story, reporters were using a kernel of truth to reinforce a larger prejudice.  And that, I would argue – having a news story mis-educate a reader – is the very opposite of journalism.

And the same goes with the Post’s reporting on White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler.  Yes, some in society care more about her shoes than Dan Pfeiffer’s (though I’d take Pfeiffer and his shoes any day). But that’s because society is still a little sexist about fashion, and about the workplace.

When you take a woman who has risen to a remarkable position, serving as the lawyer to the President of the United States of America, and you call her a “litigatrix” in “stunning 4-inch bright pink stiletto spikes,” you diminish her, her accomplishments, and all women.


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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48 Responses to “Wash Post runs sexist story about White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler’s shoes”

  1. Ling Student on Gender Studies says:

    Actually Germany’s way of dealing with Sexism is TO impose gender distinctive endings. As opposed to trying to ignore it. Of course English which is part of the Germanic family of languages, got rid of most gender terms, Germany is currently one of the least sexist countries, and yet they have gender specific terms. Backer, Backerin for male and female specifically. And the Germany of today is nothing like the Germany of 1940’s so please don’t bring up something stupid.

  2. Robert L Bell says:

    So John, how’s your plan to crush Howard Dean like a ripe mango?

  3. pappyvet says:

    Like there is nothing important to deal with

  4. Ladies First Shoe Boutique says:

    It is offensive to hear or experience sexist remarks whether you are a female or male. However, there is nothing wrong with a professional woman wearing a beautiful pair of heels that compliment her!

  5. BillFromDover says:

    The age of Aquarius… THE AGE OF AQUARIUS, for the tyros here.

  6. BillFromDover says:

    Disco… any disco?

    Ugh!

    Bring back Fog Hat!

  7. BillFromDover says:

    Does that make ya a solo-practicing attendatrix?

  8. BeccaM says:

    I thought it was cocaine back then, no?

  9. karmanot says:

    It was the ecstasy, that explains it.

  10. karmanot says:

    Like+++++++

  11. BeccaM says:

    *shudder*

  12. BeccaM says:

    Sure, why not?

  13. karmanot says:

    I stand corrected…..Definitely Troletta for musical comedy! . Trolina will do for those special occasions when anti-GLTBQ nags appear. Troliene was been a drag name for many generations now. But thanks to you I can use trolatrix. It could have come in handy yesterday. Keep up the good work PJ. :-)

  14. Zorba says:

    LOL! Well, I definitely hear a Greek chorus behind the tales I tell, too, K.
    Only, they happen to actually be in the Greek language. :-)

  15. perljammer says:

    I guess you missed the part about the agent noun ending in -tor. Maybe trollina? Trolliene? Trolletta?

  16. karmanot says:

    Yep, I was born in a grey flannel diaper, went to school in a blue blazer, loafers and slacks. Then I went hippie and never looked back. My mother, who was a corporate officer ,wore Bill Blass suits until the day she retired and then went jogging outfits….it must run in the family. As for men, ties are a power symbol—-Hermes stands near the top. Also, businessmen who buy red Pope/Cardinal socks (hose) in Rome rule the roost.

  17. perljammer says:

    Fair enough. Now, what about the Oscar categories “Actress in a Supporting Role” and “Actress”? Why not ditch them and just nominate male and female actors in the same gender-neutral categories?

  18. karmanot says:

    I maintain that story tellers are always successful, for the seeds of humanity are planted in each generation by the deeds of ancestors. I’m Irish, our stories go back millennium, as do your Z. I hear a Greek chorus behind every tale I narrate. :-)

  19. karmanot says:

    Becca, early Disco was so fantastic. I spent my weekends at the Saint in Manhattan and the Ice Palace on the Island. It was magical. Then Studio 54 ruined everything. When Barbara Walters got groovy, the groove left town.

  20. karmanot says:

    I thought ‘legally Blond’ was a satire.

  21. Zorba says:

    Oh No!!! The Disco era!!! So sorry, Becc. We had better music, at least.
    But I have been so disappointed, over and over again, about things like the defeat of the ERA, the continual eroding of Roe V. Wade, and on and on and on. It seems as though for every step or two forward, there are many steps backward.

    The right-wing religious people seem to have more and more sway over the Republican Party (and way too many of the Democrats). Not to mention the ever-increasing power of large corporations and their control over both parties, to the detriment of all of us.
    {{Sigh}} Time for a revolution of some kind in this country, except that so many people are so complacent, and keep believing and voting for shit that is against their own self-interest that I despair about anything changing, at least in my lifetime.
    We tried, you young people. We tried, and we were ultimately not successful. I hope that you all do better than we did.

  22. karmanot says:

    Very informative! From here on I will, on occasion, use the term trollatrix.

  23. Sweetie says:

    Men’s suits are their own form of oppression, reminiscent of this:

    http://grandoldmovies.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/wyler-jezebel.jpg

  24. Sweetie says:

    archaeopteryx

  25. BeccaM says:

    I’m a 50 year old wannabe hippie who had to endure the horror of the Disco era. Growing up, I was SO angry I missed out on getting to be a real hippie, that by time I was old enough to have joined the counterculture, it was already over.

    Then came the 80s and the defeat of the ERA and I was like, “Are you effin’ kidding me? Women’s equality is something people actually oppose?!”

    Overall, a lot has gotten better for the younger women, so much so that many of them have no idea how it was 30-40 years ago for women in the workplace and as portrayed in the media. But it sure does feel like we’ve made maybe 10 years worth rather than the 40-50 that’s passed since the birth of the women’s liberation movement.

  26. BeccaM says:

    The use of gender dimorphic prefixes such as ‘-trix’ is now considered archaic and inappropriate for common use due to its sexist connotations.

    I remember watching those old newsreels where Earhardt was referred to as an aviatrix, and invariably the male narrator’s tone was of incredulity. Yet, back in her day, it was an appropriate (although unfortunately used) term. Now? In the 21st century? Not at all.

    Using gender specific terms for the same job is a way of imposing a linguistic “separate but unequal” status to the people performing them.

    When I saw the word “litigatrix” in that article, it contained all of those century-old connotations of, “Well lookee! Here’s a little lady who thinks she can lawyer with the big boys. How bizarre! How titillating!” The entire piece was a sexualization of her job as legal advisor (advisatrix?) to the president.

  27. BeccaM says:

    I tend to agree with you. I think that the rigidity of the standard business suit has gone too far and really does result in excessive anonymity and invisibility. At any given time, there are only a few acceptable styles of male business suit, and accessorization these days is limited to shirt and necktie colors.

    Male or female, I also enjoy looking at someone who is especially sharp-dressed and presenting themselves well. But another thing we seem to have lost in our culture is the sense of dressing to the occasion. Work/business clothes for the workplace. Other clothes for dinners or special occasions. Still other outfits for a night on the town. I look at Ruemmler’s blue dress and high heels and see a woman dressed for dinner at a nightclub or for dancing, not for serious work.

  28. perljammer says:

    The story leads off with the line, “It may say more about Washington than White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler that she’s known in the West Wing for her fabulous shoes.” If that’s true, then the sexism problem here isn’t with the Post; it’s with the White House.

    By the way, Amelia Earhardt was commonly referred to as an aviatrix. Do you think that means she was “like a mean hooker who beats you with chains while having sex”? From dictionary.com:

    “A suffix borrowed directly from Latin, -trix has been used since the 15th century on feminine agent nouns that correspond to a masculine (in Latin) or generic (in English) agent noun ending in -tor: aviator, aviatrix; legislator, legislatrix; orator, oratrix. Most nouns in -trix have dropped from general use, so that terms like aviatrix, benefactrix, legislatrix, oratrix, and proprietrix occur rarely or not at all in present-day English. The forms in -tor are applied to both men and women: Her sister is the proprietor of a new restaurant.”

  29. karmanot says:

    Me too, I kaddish and keen too much these days for those days Z.

  30. Zorba says:

    My friends still call me an “aging hippie.” I don’t care. I wear the appellation proudly. I wish there were more of us, K. ;-)

  31. karmanot says:

    One of the advantages of a suit is the very uniformity and unanimity of it. One can ninja one’s way into virtually any American atmosphere with it—-like Harry Potter’s cloak. On the other hand, aside from all the sexist baggage, I always enjoy looking at women and the decorative ways they express personality.

  32. karmanot says:

    “I’m still an old 60’s-70’s hippie.” Same here. I try to explain when pressed that’s not stuck in time, but an evolving world and individual view.

  33. Zorba says:

    Yes. ^^Exactly this^^
    Thank you, Becc. I really don’t care what women choose to wear on the whole (or men either), but you are absolutely correct. There are all kinds of “unconsciously sexist remarks and attitudes on a daily basis.”

    Women are still held to a different standard than men, and unfortunately, oftentimes it is other women who buy into this.
    {{Sigh}} But society also has these “different standards” for others, not just women. If Blacks or Hispanics are not perceived as “white enough,” even if male, then way too often, they are also often disparaged. Let’s face it, if someone is not seen as hewing closely enough to the “white, middle or upper class male” demographic, that someone is going to be denigrated. Period.
    And sadly enough, even many Blacks and Hispanics buy into this and run down their own women. :-(

    Woman Power!
    And more than this, People Power! Just people, no matter their gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, whatever. We are all just people, and should be accepted as such.
    Ah, well. I guess I’m still an old 60’s-70’s hippie. And I’m not going to change my opinions any time soon. ;-)

  34. emjayay says:

    Why thank you. I wasn’t clever enough to make the point that “Ruemmler is an active collaborator in this sexism.” Like I said, the more I thought about it, in terms of her position, the wierder her style of dress got. The superficial article didn’t go there, or anywhere for that matter.

  35. BeccaM says:

    Sadly, I agree with you: Ruemmler is an active collaborator in this sexism.

  36. BeccaM says:

    Another weird observation: I work in technical consulting. As I type this message, I’m attending a client teleconference meeting where there are 27 invitees.

    I am the only female.

  37. karmanot says:

    Amen! and besides, knees are usually butt ugly.

  38. karmanot says:

    Ya gotta admire a good smart ass these days in journalism. There hasn’t been a good one since Andy Sullivan went vanilla and the amazing Christopher Hitchens died.

  39. cole3244 says:

    why don’t the post and times merge and save the duplication print since they are the same rags as it relates to journalism.

  40. karmanot says:

    I tend to side with the flash side of decorum, although I would agree that nothing short of nude would get me to gaze for too long at Judge Judy.

  41. BeccaM says:

    We women have known for a while now that our worst enemies aren’t the casually misogynistic men, but the women in our midst who at every turn undercut our dignity and credibility as professionals.

    We laughed the other day when Wolf Blitzer apparently didn’t understand there could be atheists and non-Christians living in Oklahoma. But women are presented with all kinds of unconsciously sexist remarks and attitudes on a daily basis.

    Do we cry when we’re frustrated at work? Is it a struggle to balance career and family? Are we actually serious about college, or just there for the proverbial M.R.S. degree? These are questions which would never be asked of a man. Nor would some biographical article rave on for paragraphs about his shoes.

    I have to say though that Ruemmler isn’t helping our cause much either. Four-inch bright pink spike heels are worn to draw attention, and not all that practical for work. If we want to be accepted as professionals and as serious, we need to dress the part and present ourselves that way.

  42. Oh shoot, didn’t realize I’d left out the link, just added it now, thanks

  43. emjayay says:

    I didn’t see a link so I looked up the article. Yes, it’s stupid and sexist. The “ligatrix” thing is quoting someone else, which is sort of a cheating way to use it without getting blamed for it.

    An article that is actually about something might be about women’s presentation in the workplace. I’m no prude, but even in the White House supplied photo included in the article her clothing choices seem a bit unprofessional to me. All the men seem to feel their position requires wearing a suit. They are not just in highly paid professional positions, but are representing the federal government and the Obama administration to the public in a photographed setting.

    Ms. Reummler apparently feels wearing a dress appropriate to a teenage girl is the right thing. Soft thin fabric – probably silk, four or five inches above the knees, skirt showing, no hose apparently, light colored heels. It’s not even a good look for her. Particularly the knees. Yes, If someone dresses in a way they must feel is attractive rather than conventional, we get to discuss how it worked out.

    She may be the best lawyer in the country, but I’m questioning her judgement. Would she dress like that and (not shown in the picture) wear flashy expensive super high heels in the courtroom? She’s just representing a client to the judge and jury there; the stakes are a bit higher in this instance.

  44. BB103 says:

    While I agree with most of what you say about this I feel that you have overlooked one distinct possibility. Perhaps the journalist is bemoaning the fact that she cannot afford Blahniks herself and has stooped to name calling to make herself somehow feel better…

  45. Thanks. And I don’t totally agree. I agree with the gist of Gloria’s quote, there’s nothing wrong, and maybe even a lot right, about a woman at the peak of her career not being afraid to be sexy. Rather than caving to society’s expectations of her, perhaps she’s turning them around on people by saying, you expect me to look like a man in order to succeed, I’m more important than all of you, and check out these heels :)

  46. Kes says:

    Awesome post, John. +1!
    And really…nobody who wears stilettos is being “their own person.” We’re all a victim to social concepts about clothing and attire. Heels are designed to lengthen the leg, change the shape of the wearer’s calf, and alter stride in a way which is “feminizing,” but there’s nothing really “empowering” about any of that, even if you choose to do it. They’re also classist, in that heels were designed to separate ladies who lunch from women who work (and who can’t wear heels without destroying their feet). I’m really sick of how “empowering” is a totally empty word now, apparently meaning “anything a person chooses to do.”

  47. S1AMER says:

    Some days I think American society is moving forward. And then there are so many other days …

  48. Monoceros Forth says:

    “Litigatrix”? Oh, brother. Some idiot journalist with the weensiest scrap of classical learning stuck in his head decided he’d be clever.

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