Kay Steiger

NPR’s Kirsten Gillibrand profile wants you to make extra sure you know she’s a lady

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I was a little taken aback by the profile of Kirsten Gillibrand by NPR’s Alisa Chang this morning. It certainly contained a lot of references to the fact that Gillibrand is a woman. This piece is basically “she’s a woman and a Senator!” It’s true that Gillibrand has built her brand about a lot of “women’s issues” — introducing bills on sexual assault in the military, pregnancy discrimination, and work-life balance (though arguably those bills make life better for men, too), but man, the gratuitous use of language is really something. For example:

Kirsten Gillibrand has a soft, girlie voice that takes on a certain earnestness when she gets angry. […]

Gillibrand is petite, blond and perky. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid once called her the “hottest member” of the U.S. Senate. But friends say the woman has scary grit — precisely the kind of person who can go head-to-head with the military about how it’s handling sexual assault.

Get it? She’s attractive and can somehow manage to do something with the military!

Just ask former Rep. Jane Harman of California, who watched a very pregnant Gillibrand work through a committee session while enduring 12 hours of pre-labor pains. Gillibrand was in the House then.

“As self-appointed mama-in-chief, I said, ‘Kirsten, go to the hospital.’ ‘Oh no,’ she said, ‘I’m fine, this is my second child, I’ll be fine,’ ” Harman recalls.

Only hours later did Gillibrand finally leave the Capitol, and she ended up giving birth to her second son in the middle of the night.

OK, I’ll admit it; that’s pretty badass. But the idea that we applaud women who potentially put their health and safety at risk when pregnant to work hard is, well, a little gross.

“I’m very ambitious. I’m very aggressive. But I do it in a really nice way,” Gillibrand says with a laugh.

This reveals that Gillibrand is very aware of the gender stereotypes around “agressive” women. It’s a tactic I’ve used before — telling conservatives off camera that I’ll try to “be nice about it” when we disagree about a political issue.

“Sometimes people say, ‘Well, why do you just focus on women’s issues?’ Well, why do you focus on issues that pertain to 52 percent of the population? It’s pretty important. And women are such the untapped potential in this economy,” says Gillibrand.

Yes, explain yourself! Why, woman, do you focus that are important to you?

President Stephanie Schriock says Gillibrand is an adept fundraiser because she’s intensely persistent.

“She works very, very hard,” says Schriock, “and I think part of the reason she works so hard is she’s got to get a lot done so she can get home at night and see her kids.”

What’s fascinating about this is that there are plenty of male staffers who work hard so they can go home and see their kids, but that almost never makes it into profiles of them.

Last fall, Gillibrand won her first full Senate term with 72 percent of the vote. That’s better than Sen. Schumer has ever done.

That kicker is pretty great, actually. It uses numbers to show Gillibrand is awesome on her own, even in comparison to her colleague.

I get it. Writing a profile of a prominent female politician is tricky. We’re so steeped in stereotypes about women in power that it’s really difficult not to absorb some of them in your writing, but I really have to sigh when a hard-working member of the Senate is described as “perky.”

Update: While writing this post, NPR removed the reference to “petite, blond and perky.”

Written by kaysteiger

May 16, 2013 at 11:00 AM

Posted in gender equality

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