The boys club
October 18, 2011By Dick Polman
I'm skeptical that Elizabeth Warren can win her 2012 Senate race in Massachusetts. Her biggest hurdle may be the fact that she is running in Massachusetts.
Granted, the Bay State is one of America's bluest bastions. It was ground zero for the Kennedy dynasty, it was the sole state to support George McGovern in his doomed '72 bid, and, indeed, it has backed Democratic presidential candidates in 17 of 21 elections dating back to 1928.
And yet, take a guess how many women have ever won senatorial or gubernatorial elections in Massachusetts.
None. Zip. Nada.
This may strike you as a counter-intuitive factoid, given the state's political reputation, but it's true nonetheless. Massachusetts is far less enlightened on this gender issue than many of the states that typically vote Republican in national elections. When I turned on the TV last night, for instance, there was Senator Kay Hagan, an elected Democrat from North Carolina - and she didn't even blaze the trail in North Carolina; Republican Elizabeth Dole has already come and gone from the Senate, and a female Democrat, Bev Purdue, currently serves as governor.
Elsewhere in the red region, the list of women, past and present, is noteworthy: In Texas, the late Democratic Gov. Ann Richards and current Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison; in South Carolina, current Republican Gov. Nikki Haley; in Louisiana, current Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu and ex-Gov. Kathleen Blanco; in Arkansas, ex-Democratic senators Blanche Lincoln and Hattie Caraway (the latter was the first woman ever elected - and reelected - to the Senate, way back in the 1930s). Kansas and Oklahoma have elected female governors. Kansas elected a female senator 33 years ago. Florida voters sent Republican Paula Hawkins to the Senate 30 years ago.
All told, there are currently 17 women in the Senate (a record high) - including Claire McCaskill from swing-state Missouri. And Massachusetts' neighbor to the north, swing-state New Hampshire, boasts two female senators, one from each party.
So why have women been shut out in Massachusetts? What's up with that?
Martin Frost, the former Texas Democratic congressman, probably said it best a few weeks ago when he noted that Massachusetts "is one of the last bastions of male chauvinism in American politics."
Elizabeth Warren is currently virtually tied with incumbent Republican Scott Brown in the early polls, which is good news for Warren. The bad news is that, every step of the way, she's going to have to buck the male-chauvinist bastion. And the bastion remains strong because Massachusetts, for all its political liberalism, is still culturally conservative on issues of gender.
There's a huge blue-collar Catholic constituency that continues to look askance at female candidates (particularly those who still have young kids at home). The independent swing vote in Massachusetts is comprised largely of working-class men (known during the '80s as Reagan Democrats) who often have a higher bar for female candidates. As Victoria Budson, a public policy scholar at Harvard, reportedly puts it, aspiring women in Massachusetts are typically judged on three criteria: "hair, hemlines, and husbands."
And the Massachusetts Democratic establishment is still a boys club; it has never sought to develop a deep bench of females for higher office. Plus, politics in Massachusetts is often brutal, and the traditional boys' view is that girls are ill suited for the blood sport. And so the vicious circle continues to turn.
I'm not suggesting that Elizabeth Warren is doomed to be a victim of sexism; nevertheless, it's already clear that she's destined to fight Scott Brown on a cultural playing field tilted in his favor. He famously posed nude for a magazine years ago; the swing voters shrugged it off when they elected him to fill Ted Kennedy's seat in January '10. But if Warren had ever posed nude in her youth, Massachusetts swing voters would probably view it as the behavior of a loose woman. In fact, Brown joked the other day that "thank God" Warren had never posed nude - an apparent putdown of her looks. There was no outcry when he said it.
For female candidates in Massachusetts, it's still all about the looks. When Warren staged her first meet-and-greet campaign event last month, a radio reporter told listeners that the candidates was wearing "sensible shows" and sporting "cropped short blonde hair and rimless glasses." Whereas male candidates are typically not scrutinized on matters of footwear, hair, or spectacle style.
Granted, Brown won his '10 race (and stunned the political world) because he was a more effective candidate than his soporific rival, state attorney general Martha Coakley. But the point is, soporific Democratic men have been winning races in Massachusetts since time immemorial. Coakley had little margin for error because of the prevailing cultural climate; as one labor leader reported at the time, local Teamsters were going around saying, "I'm not voting for that broad." One guy at a political rally even yelled out, "Shove a curling iron up her butt!"
Elizabeth Warren will need to neutralize those voices, if she is to have any hope of breaching the Bay State's resistant glass ceiling.
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