Press Portrayals of Women Politicians, 1870s-2000s: From "Lunatic" Woodhull to "Polarizing" Palin

By Lucht, Tracy | Journalism History, July 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Press Portrayals of Women Politicians, 1870s-2000s: From "Lunatic" Woodhull to "Polarizing" Palin


Lucht, Tracy, Journalism History


Finneman, Teri. Press Portrayals of Women Politicians, 1870s-2000s: From "Lunatic" Woodhull to "Polarizing" Palin. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2015. 228 pp. $85.

With Hillary Clinton poised to secure the Democratic Party's presidential noïhination in 2016, this important book arrived at just the right time. In Press Portrayals of Women Politicians, Teri Finneman offers a searing, systematic content analysis of how four pioneering women were treated by the American press. It should be required reading for today's political journalists, who no doubt will resort to many of the same gendered tropes Finneman argues were evident as early as 1872.

While many content analyses and historical studies have examined media portrayals of women, this book is notable for its comparative, longitudinal approach, which the author uses to examine newspaper discourse about women politicians over time. Underlying this objective, of course, is the fact that 227 years into U.S. history, voters have never elected a woman to lead the nation's executive branch. How and to what extent have the news media contributed to this failure? A definitive answer lies beyond the reach of this book, although the author presents compelling evidence of prolonged and entrenched sexism in newspaper and wire stories about women in the historically masculine arena of politics.

The book meticulously analyzes hundreds of articles about four significant women in U.S. political history: Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president, as a member of the Equal Rights Party, in 1872; Jeannette Rankin, Republican from Montana, the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress, in 1916; Margaret Chase Smith, Republican from Maine, the first woman to receive a nomination for president at a major party's convention, in 1964; and Sarah Palin, the first woman to run for vice president on the Republican ticket, in 2008. Each politician gets her own chapter, so the book functions as a series of four parallel case studies and concludes with a chapter that draws comparisons based on the findings.

The project's strengths are its method and richly descriptive findings, which are categorized by theme and carefully contextualized for each case study. Demonstrating a solid grasp of history and previous scholarship in this area, Finneman ably traces the changes in political and journalistic culture that shaped newspaper coverage of each woman. This leads to important insights, such as the increased attention paid to Woodhull's and Palin's personal lives in the more partisan news eras of the 1870s and the 2000s and the legitimacy granted to Rankin when the suffrage movement was at its peak (compared with journalists' negligence of Smith when feminist activities were less culturally prominent). …

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