Givhan Denies Sexism in Scolding Kagan for Not Sitting Like a Lady


Kagan Won't Cross Her LegsMediaite’s good friends at Media Matters for America have been all over Dowdygate and provide the first response from Washington Post fashion writer Robin Givhan, who denies any sexism in accusing Elena Kagan of not being ladylike when she sits in a chair and for wearing dowdy frocks.

In an email to Joe Strupp, Givhan says she hasn’t been paying attention to the complaining on the Internet about her critique of Kagan’s clothes and manner, but that she doesn’t consider what she said sexist. “As for being sexist…I don’t think writing about a woman’s appearance in the public sphere is inherently sexist. And yes, I’ve written about both Alito and Roberts. How quickly people forget,” the Pulitzer Prize-winner told Strupp.

Givhan’s denial of sexism isn’t likely to stop the chatter, which even made it to the Senate today when Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) took to Senate floor to criticize the attacks on Kagan’s looks.  It was a picture of Kagan’s conversation with Klobuchar that sparked Givhan to say that while Klobuchar sat like a lady, Kagan did not.

“I have to say that I never thought I would be discussing this in this chamber,” Klobuchar said in rehashing Dowdygate for the Senate, noting her role in the drama.  “I don’t think such an article was ever written about Chief Justice Roberts,” Klobuchar added, trying to imagine a similar Givhan expose on who was crossing their legs in a hypothetical conversation between Roberts and Sec. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

The critique of Kagan’s style has rubbed many the wrong way, especially Supreme Court watchers and D.C. insiders.  Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick, who covers the Supreme Court and once clerked for a federal judge, said at Slate’s XXFactor blog that “such a column would never, ever be written about a man, and we all know it.” Lithwick doesn’t blame Givhan for creating the double-standard in “that allows women about a millimeter of sartorial space in which to operate in public life, and I suppose you can’t fault her for playing to it—that’s her job. But it doesn’t make the column any less depressing to read, or Post readers any less depressed by having to read it.”

At the Capital Comment blog of Washingtonian magazine, Supreme Court litigator Maureen Mahoney of Latham & Watkins asked “[w]hy would fashion-savvy be a relevant criterion for assessing a judicial nominee’s qualifications?” She added that Kagan “should be applauded, not ridiculed” for dressing like so many other Washington professional women.

While it’s true that Givhan has skewered the clothes of Washington men, many commenters have noted that she is especially harsh when discussing women.  Whether it is Harriet Miers or Hillary Clinton, Givhan’s critics have noted she’s especially harsh when dealing with women and the critiques are much sharper than the treatment she gives men.

Givhan makes her living–and reputation–analyzing the style and behavior of Washington’s elite and so she is going to be critical.  But while the thin-models of Milan and Bryant Park may be used to being objectified for how they walk and what they are wearing, it is something different when it is “real people” whose styles are being analyzed, especially when those styles aren’t integral to the woman’s professional identity.

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