President Barack Obama walks with California Attorney General Kamala Harris after arriving at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco.  The pair are old friends.

President Barack Obama walks with California Attorney General Kamala Harris after arriving at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco. The pair are old friends. Photo: Eric Risberg / AP Photo

Last week, US President Barack Obama was forced to apologise for referring to fellow Democrat Kamala Harris as, "by far, the best-looking attorney-general". Although plenty found the comment patronisingly sexist, others defended it as harmless.

It's no secret that much of Obama's success has to do with his popularity with women. His 55 to 44 per cent advantage over Mitt Romney with women voters helped propel him to a second term last November, and he is undoubtedly more progressive on women's issues then either of his last two Republican opponents.

There is a troubling tendency, however, for the President to exhibit signs of sexism that is difficult to call him out on without being accused of seeing a problem where there isn't one.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris was called the “best-looking” attorney general in the country by President Obama.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris was called the best-looking attorney general in the country by President Obama.

Sexism takes many forms. There is the outright misogyny of the continuing sexual assault epidemic in Egypt; there is Tony Abbott's style of sexism that still has women at home doing all the ironing; and then there is Obama's subtle – almost unconscious – sexism that manifests even as he outwardly praises women.

But its subtlety does not make it any less real.

So, what's wrong with calling a woman "good looking"? Well, ostensibly, nothing. It shouldn't be an issue, and it wouldn't be if not for the fact that for much of human history women, considered to lack the intellectual and reasoning skills of men, were lauded for their looks precisely because they were thought to have nothing else to offer.

In such a context, praising women's looks is not necessarily a compliment but a reminder that they are not quite on the same level as men, whose worth is measured primarily by what they do, rather than the way they look. The words of Mary Wollstonecraft, written way back in 1793, ring no less true today:

"Taught from infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre the mind shapes itself to the body and roaming around its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison."

To see this in action look no further than the concept of female "empowerment", which nowadays is directly related to the amount of skin a woman shows and how "sexy" she looks doing it. It began with the Spice Girls, whose "girl power" mantra was a shameful subversion of the early 90s riot grrrl movement that spawned a feminist revival, only to see its ideals trampled beneath the platform heels of a manufactured pop act that equated "power" with "sex object" status.

The mantle has since passed to Lady Gaga and now – incredibly – Beyonce, who we are supposed to believe is the modern embodiment of feminism. I've said it before and I'll say it again; if being naked were a sign of empowerment, then Obama would show up to the Oval Office in a diamante-encrusted bra and matching G-string.

When there is a gulf between what men and women are required to do to be "empowered", then you can bet your life that the expectations on women are those that men would never dream of applying to themselves.

Obama's remark was a grossly inappropriate act that exposes the truth in our supposedly egalitarian 21st century society: women cannot escape being judged on their looks. And once we make it socially acceptable to comment on women's attractiveness, it is only a short step away to remarking on their lack of it, as the obsession with Hillary Clinton's "cankles" shows.

Let's be honest here, the reason women are praised for their sex appeal above all else is to gently remind them that their purpose is to provide visual stimulation for men who, when they are not busy doing Important Things, like to have something nice to look at.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that women should never want to feel attractive. Like many other straight women, I get a thrill when a man I happen be drawn to looks at me in That Way. My stomach does its little black flips when he calls me striking, or stunning or sexy. But I would hope that that's not all he sees. There is a difference between physical appearance being viewed as only one aspect of your persona and your looks signifying your entire worth as a person.

Nor am I saying Obama was guilty of reducing Harris only to her looks. But in a world that still judges women on their "hotness", where beauty pageants are still A Thing, and where girls are taught to imitate plastic dolls, then there is a problem.

This is not the first time Obama has been called out for this kind of covert sexism. Following his last State of the Union address in which he positioned women's rights as the struggle to protect "our wives, mothers and daughters", Melissa McEwan, founder of feminist blog Shakesville, wrote a petition asking him to stop using what she called "reductive" language that values women only by their relationships to other people. Furthermore, she writes, "referring to 'our' wives et al, the President appears to be talking to The Men of America about Their Women, rather than talking to men AND women."

In other words, women don't just deserve rights because they are someone's mother or daughter or sister. They deserve them because they are people in their own right.

Again, to understand the implications of Obama's rhetoric, we need to draw on the long history of women being identified by their relationships to men. Women were literally property, passed on from their fathers to their husbands. Men's identity was a constant, whereas women's was interchangeable depending on which man she belonged to at the time.

It's a tough call singling out this sort of sexism. Feminists such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali believe it is ridiculous, considering what some women in the world are subjected to on a daily basis. And while it may seem petty to complain about a woman being called "good looking", we must keep in mind that all sexism and misogyny has the same root: the mistaken perception that there are fundamental differences between men and women (obvious physical attributes aside), and these differences are enough to render women inferior.

The prioritisation of women's physical appearance, even of those who scale to the heights of Kamala Harris, is a persistent reminder that Wollstonecraft's gilt cage has not yet been opened. Yes, vast inroads have been made but, in a world where 78 per cent of front page newspaper articles are written by men, then by and large, women are still the attractive "other", worthy of being seen but still struggling to be heard.