November 20, 2006

How the Media Speak about Madame Speaker

Nancy Pelosi Steny Hoyer Trent Lott
“Grandmother/father” 237 9 3
“Hair” 73 8 4
“Wardrobe” 47

There have been 51 Speakers of the House in U.S. history, but there has never been a woman in the office until now – or at least until January 2007 when Nancy Pelosi will formally assume the helm.

That makes Pelosi extremely newsworthy and certainly ripe for personality profiles and media attention. But does the press treat a woman's rise to a position of power differently than a man's? A look at some of the terms used in stories about Pelosi may help provide an answer.

The Capitol building is not exactly a bastion of youth, and its halls are filled with legislators who are also grandparents. Pelosi has not been shy about mentioning her status as a grandmother. But apparently there’s something about the female of the political species that brings the issue of matriarchy and family to the forefront.

Since the day after Election Day the press has frequently referred to the fact that the incoming Speaker is a “grandmother.” The word has appeared in stories with Pelosi’s name 237 times, according to a search of Google News. Newly elected House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer also has grandchildren, but only nine stories with his name mentioned the word “grandfather” in the same time period. And Senator Trent Lott, who amid much media coverage rode back into the Republican leadership last week as Minority Whip, has four grandkids. But that is one more grandchild than the three stories with his name that also mentioned the word “grandfather."

Clothes may make the man, but they seem to be even more of a topic for the incoming Madame Speaker. Pelosi’s name has appeared in the same story as “wardrobe” 47 times since November 8. In that time period Messrs. Hoyer and Lott have not had that word turn up a single time in stories with their names.

Pelosi’s tresses have also generated their fair share of coverage since Nov. 8., with the word “hair” showing up in 73 stories that also include her name. (“Pelosi, at 66, is a Glam-Fem. Her hair is dark and coiffed,” read one Washington Post column.) Yet the well-maintained coiffures of Hoyer and Lott have proven to be considerably less newsworthy with “hair” turning up in stories with their names a mere eight and four times respectively.

Some of this coverage may reflect the novelty of a woman going into what had been exclusively a man’s job. But Pelosi’s sex hasn’t overshadowed all. Nancy Pelosi and “effective" turned up in 563 stories searching Google News from November 8 forward — more than the other three terms combined.