Gender isn't the focus of Kristi Noem's campaign for South Dakota Governor. But that doesn't mean it isn't a factor.
Congresswoman Noem has largely declined to discuss the historical significance of her race for the state's highest office. She's not running as a woman. She's running as a Republican. Fair enough.
Noem understands that, if elected, she would be the state's first female governor. You don't have to explain that to her. It's just that she doesn't seem to think it matters much during the campaign, and that's a savvy approach.
And yet ...
The day after the primary, when Noem beat out South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley to garner the GOP nomination, I walked in to a gas station. The morning crowd of gentlemen had assembled, and they were deep into the day's political discourse.
"I'm telling ya, I don't want a lady governor."
I'm guessing (from the frustration in the man's voice) that he voted for Jackley and was still processing the loss. Maybe he had run out of ways to express his dislike of the alternative and wasn't ready to throw his support toward the candidate who slammed the door on what he considered a likable, intelligent leader. Maybe he'll come around and proudly cast his vote for Noem in November.
Or maybe he'll take a closer look at Democratic candidate Billie Sutton and like what he sees.
Either way, I was taken aback by his terminology: Lady Governor.
The same morning, someone I know on Facebook called Noem a liar in a post intended to rally voters to Sutton's campaign. The man who posted said it would take "more than a hairdo and a horseback riding commercial" to lead the state. This perplexes me, because, as hairdos go, both Noem and Sutton (and Jackley for that matter) have pretty solid command of what grows on top of their heads. (Also, all three of them ride horses in their campaign ads, but that's a column for a different day.)
What's the inference here? Republicans only voted for Noem because of her hairstyle? She’s nothing more than a pretty face? That doesn't seem like a smart way to see her if you intend to beat her in November.
Those who know me know I can wax poetic on this topic for quite a while. For some reason, people love to comment on Kristi Noem's appearance (hair and jewelry mostly) even though the woman's earrings have nothing to do with her policy.
Dakota Political Junkie Jonathan Ellis tells me only disgruntled liberals critique Noem's looks. The way he sees it, Democrats are still peeved over Stephanie Herseth Sandlin's loss to Noem, but I'm not so sure he's right on this one. When I hear a presumably Republican man grumble in a gas station about a "lady governor" I'm guessing there's more at play here.
I once had an editor who asked me to write about Noem's hair (true story) because everyone seems to have an opinion on it. I declined the assignment because it felt … ahem … irrelevant. Years later, however, I came across an article that examined the fashion sense of Christine Legarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund. People talked about Legarde's style, the author argued, because women have so few female leaders to model their own business looks after. When we have more women in power, we'll talk less about what's dangling from the ears of the ones who are. We mention earrings because earrings still seem like a novelty.
I wish I had thought of that.
Also, it is not lost on me that here I am, writing about Kristi Noem's hair, a topic I once turned my journalistic nose up at. Maybe I shouldn't mention it at all. Maybe I should take a cue from the Congresswoman and decline to focus on topics of gender as this campaign moves forward.
I will if that guy in the gas station will.