Growing the Girls' Club

Martha Coakley’s Democratic primary win in Massachusetts puts women on course for an all-time high 18 seats in the U.S. Senate. Samuel P. Jacobs on how she did it.

Martha Coakley, Massachusetts’ attorney general, did more than just take a giant step toward joining America’s most exclusive club Tuesday night. By handily winning the Democratic primary to replace the late Edward M. Kennedy in the U.S. Senate, Coakley is all but assured of taking his seat after the general election next January (Massachusetts hasn’t sent a Republican to the Senate in 37 years). And that would make Coakley the 18th female senator serving in the 111th Congress—an all-time high for the women's caucus.

Coakley’s win may prove historic in Massachusetts, as well. Despite its progressive reputation—one forged in no small part by the Kennedy family—the state has been surprisingly inhospitable to female candidates.

Despite its progressive reputation—one forged in no small part by the Kennedy family—the state has been surprisingly inhospitable to female candidates.

Massachusetts has sent only four women to the House of Representatives in its history, and it has never elected a female senator; only a handful, including Coakley, have won statewide office of any sort. Jane Swift and Kerry Healey both served as lieutenant governors in Republican administrations (Swift served as acting governor from 2001 to 2003) and both faded rather quickly from the scene. According to Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics, Massachusetts ranks 18th in the United States for the number of women serving in the state legislature.

Katarina Andersson: Obama’s Oslo Snub “This one of the more visible Senate seats in the country, and it’s in a state that, while it is a very progressive state, does not have a great record for electing women to office,” Walsh told me at the start of the campaign.

Coakley, 56, ran a nearly flawless campaign, and the outcome was never really in doubt. She did it by making sure the race never got too interesting. For most of the campaign, Boston’s chattering class hit the snooze button. During the debates, her main rivals, U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano and private-equity man Stephen Pagliuca, part owner of the Boston Celtics, added a little spice to the affair, but they seemed locked in a strange struggle for second place. The fourth Democratic candidate was Alan Khazei, a social entrepreneur, whose cheerful message attracted the backing of the Boston Globe’s editorial page and a smattering of Kennedy family supporters, but was not enough to overshadow opponents with higher visibility and bigger campaign war chests.

Coakley’s gender was clearly an asset. In a University of New Hampshire poll a few weeks before voting day, 10 percent of likely Democratic male voters and 20 percent of likely women voters said they preferred voting for a woman. The poll’s author Andrew E. Smith told The Daily Beast that these were high numbers. “Put yourself in the mind of the average person,” Smith said. “Would you be swayed by something so trivial as someone’s gender?”

Coakley apparently figured it couldn’t hurt. At one point, she said her womanhood defined how she campaigned.

“Men will play to fight and win. My experience is women get into causes and things they care about, that they want to make a difference,” she told a Boston Globe writer in October.

Women’s groups like Emily’s List quickly lined up behind Coakley. Barbara Lee, a Boston philanthropist and president of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, signed on as a campaign co-chair. This led to a primary within the primary, as the fellows tried to woo leading women to their sides. Pagliuca drafted historian Doris Kearns Goodwin onto his team. Capuano loudly trumpeted the support of Gov. Deval Patrick’s wife, Diane, along with former Massachusetts first lady Kitty Dukakis and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Still, the men seemed to struggle with how to handle gender on the campaign trail. “I’ve said from Day One, I’m not concerned with gender issues,” said Capuano, the day Diana Patrick’s endorsement was announced. A few weeks later, Capuano was telling the Boston Herald about his “feminine side.”

In some ways, the battle was over before it started; Coakley, who has worked as a state prosecutor for more than 20 years, had such high name-recognition and polling numbers statewide that nearly all other the big dogs in the Democratic field heeled before the race began. That left a set of likable and well-meaning opponents who were perceived from the get-go as also-rans.

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She grew up in the working-class communities of Pittsfield and North Adams and then received an elite liberal arts education, graduating from Williams College in 1975. In 1986, Coakley joined the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office and was appointed chief of child-abuse prosecution five years later. A year before being elected head of that office, Coakley made national headlines with her prosecution of Louise Woodward, a British nanny who was convicted of manslaughter for the death of a baby in her care. Coakley was the first district attorney to bring criminal charges against clergy, part of the fallout from a Catholic church scandal that began in Massachusetts but was felt all the way back in Rome. In 2006, Coakley was elected attorney general and made headlines again—this time for her decision to drop charges against Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the construction firm behind Boston’s billion-dollar Big Dig project, responsible for the death of a woman who was crushed by a falling tunnel panel.

No figure loomed larger in the campaign than that of Sen. Edward Kennedy, whose seat Coakley is all but certain to fill. Most high-profile Kennedys stayed out the race, while Robert F. Kennedy’s son came out for Khazei. Pagliuca ran a television spot proclaiming Kennedy, “perhaps the greatest senator in the history of our state and nation. No one can fill his shoes, but the work goes on. It’s time for us to take up the fight. If you send me to the Senate, I’ll carry on that fight.” Capuano countered with his Teddy bona fides: “Ted Kennedy taught me that Washington is a tough town where you have to stand and fight when it really matters.” Coakley made her intentions clear soon after Kennedy was buried, not waiting for any other Kennedy to announce an interest in the seat which held within the family since the 1953. It was an urgency that some saw as bold and others viewed as insolent.

Will she carry on his legislative agenda? Most likely—with one important possible exception. Coakley made it clear during the campaign that she would oppose a health-care reform bill that contains a measure similar to the Stupak/Pitts amendment, which would prevent federal funding for health-care providers that cover abortion. If the Senate acts in a timely fashion, Kennedy’s interim successor, Sen. Paul Kirk, will be the one casting a vote on health care. But if the vote were delayed, Coakley might be forced to decide whether her view on the abortion issue would cause her to vote against the broader bill—a reform that Kennedy memorably called the cause of his life.

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for the Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.