It’s shocking that a Democrat lost the Massachusetts Senate race. Unless you consider that Martha Coakley is a woman—and her home state historically treats female candidates like dirt.
That the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy lost to the Republican non-entity Scott Brown is a moment of reckoning for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The current discontents do not explain this staggering defeat. Tea-baggers, disgruntled independents, an electorate made weary and confused by the health-care debate, the unemployed pissed-off, anti-establishment nay-sayers—add it all up and you still don’t have the explanation for what happened. The short of it is that the most liberal state in the nation (“Don’t blame me,” we crowed when we alone went for George McGovern in 1972, “I’m from Massachusetts”) practices the politics of misogyny. When it comes to positions of real power, no women need apply. Martha Coakley was croaked by an electorate that could not get past her gender.
When it comes to positions of real power, no women need apply. Martha Coakley was croaked by an electorate that could not get past her gender.
It’s an old story in Massachusetts—one that cuts across the boundaries of party and liberal-conservative competition. Democrats don’t tap women for the top jobs, and neither do Republicans. Female nominees are subject to expectation tests, press scrutiny, and double standards that males know nothing of. Beneath all the analysis, something irrational and sinister and sexist is at work. We could start the story with Anne Hutchinson, who was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, or with Mary Dyer, who was hanged on Boston Common, but, instead, consider this short course in recent history:
Evelyn Murphy was lieutenant governor to Michael Dukakis from 1987 to 1991—the first woman to hold statewide office in Massachusetts. As his pioneering secretary of environmental affairs in Dukakis’s first term, she had put concern for the environment on the political map. A brilliant, calm leader (master'sfrom Columbia, Ph.D. from Duke), she stood head and shoulders above other politicians of the time. But when she made her own run for governor in 1990, she hit a wall of condescension. That she was single was held against her, as was her cool demeanor. She failed the “not womanly enough” test. The Democratic nomination went to the eccentric “straight-shooter” (emphasize shooter) John Silber, which led many Democrats to vote for the callow Republican Bill Weld as a lesser evil. Weld won. Evelyn Murphy disappeared (although in 2005, she published Getting Even: Why Women Don’t Get Paid Like Men, and What to Do About It).
Jane Swift, a conservative Republican, was elected lieutenant governor in 1998 on a ticket with Paul Cellucci (who had been Weld’s lieutenant governor and succeeded him when Weld resigned to tilt with Jesse Helms over a never-to-be appointment as U.S. ambassador to Mexico.) That Republican men are bored by being governor was established when Cellucci resigned in April 2001 to be George W. Bush’s ambassador to Canada. Thus, Jane Swift was governor when, on that beautiful September morning, reports came in that airliners had struck the Twin Towers in New York. Swift quickly realized that Massachusetts was centrally involved. (Two of the hijacked airliners took off from Boston’s Logan Airport; fighter jets were scrambled from the Massachusetts National Guard base on Cape Cod. Many Massachusetts residents died.) Swift handled her duties with a calm competence that was lacking in Washington, and was praised for it.
But she had given birth to twins during her first month as governor, which seemed somehow unprofessional. Winks and nods on Beacon Hill. Sure enough, her dependence on staff for some help with child care was blown up into a major scandal. Her husband’s marital history (his previous marriages were not reflected on their marriage license) became a big deal. Since when were child-care questions and spousal history held against male politicians? Republican Swift hit the same wall of condescension that had stopped Democrat Murphy. When she aimed to run for governor in 2002, the Republican establishment unceremoniously shoved her aside in favor of Mitt Romney, who moved back to Massachusetts from Utah to run for the office, an obvious launching pad for a presidential campaign. Given no choice, Swift dropped her bid, and has not been heard from since.
Considering the shamelessly careless way in which the previous male Republican governors had bailed out on the job, the Democratic nominee was going to be a shoo-in, especially when it came out that Romney was not even a legal resident of Massachusetts. But then the state treasurer who pulled off a major coup by beating out Robert Reich (Clinton’s secretary of Labor) and Tom Birmingham (president of the State Senate) for the nomination was a woman. Shannon O’Brien was a legacy politician, and, in fact, had been the first woman to win statewide office without being on a man’s ticket. Despite her chops, and the Democratic Party’s strength that year—the electorate chose Romney. What the hell does a woman have to do to win in this state?
Romney bailed out after one term, leaving as heir apparent his Lt. Governor, Kerry Healey. She was both a patrician beauty from the upscale North Shore (her husband was fabulously wealthy) and the product of a hard-scrabble life as daughter of a schoolteacher and disabled father. Running for governor, she was a tough-as-nails candidate, but the fact that she was a gorgeous blonde was held against her. A lightweight, the wise guys said—despite her Harvard degree, and a Ph.D. from Trinity College, Dublin. Her opponent in the general election was the exceptional Deval Patrick, riding a first wave of the hope-for-change that would soon bring Barack Obama to power, but there was simply no way Massachusetts was going to elect a woman. Healy lost by 20 points.
Now the wise guys say that Coakley blew it. A distinguished attorney general, and the victor in a hard-fought primary against formidable opponents, she lost the general election to the lightest of lightweights, the centerfold Scott Brown. For weeks, the press had unloaded on Coakley (inconsistent on the death penalty? Flip-flop on the health-rights bill? Isn’t her net worth awfully low?); over the course of the same weeks, the press had given Brown a pass. That he was elected only proves the point: No one knows diddly about this guy. About Coakley, meanwhile, everyone “knows” what happened. She “didn’t want it enough,” “didn’t work hard,” “didn’t ask,” “didn’t talk up Ted Kennedy.” Wrapping herself at the end in the double aura of Clinton-Obama, they say, only diminished her. Or made her seem too much of the club. Damned if she did. Damned if she didn’t. Anyway, she was sort of cold, don’t you think?
James Carroll's recent book is Practicing Catholic, a story of American belief. He is a columnist for the Boston Globe and Distinguished-Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University. His other books include An American Requiem, which won the National Book Award, House of War, winner of the PEN-Galbraith Award, and Constantine's Sword, now an acclaimed documentary.