Don't cry sexism

It's wrong and risky to chalk up Martha Coakley's loss to Massachusetts' misogyny

Published January 21, 2010 12:14AM (EST)

Sexist and misogynist Massachusetts -- the bluest of blue states is sure being called some dirty names in the wake of Scott Brown's Senate win. In the Daily Beast, James Carroll argues the state "practices the politics of misogyny" and democratic nominee Martha Coakley was "croaked by an electorate that could not get past her gender." But, as a lefty feminist, I'm calling B.S.  It isn't so simple, and suggesting otherwise is dangerous.

It takes willful blindness to argue that Coakley's loss was chiefly the result of anything other than a crappy campaign. After winning the Democratic primary, "she took a vacation, pulled her ads and refrained from pressing the flesh," as Steve Kornacki wrote in Salon. Add to that growing insecurity and a fear of change among Americans, particularly independents, and the way Republicans were mobilized by early polls showing that Brown had a fighting chance, and his win seems not only understandable but predictable.

It may sound silly, but the most compelling evidence of sexism in this election is the centerfold. As you have likely heard and seen, Brown stripped off his clothes for a racy Cosmopolitan photo shoot in 1982. Yesterday, Salon's editor-in-chief Joan Walsh argued: "No female candidate would ever survive a race for Senate with a photo spread like that in her past. It's unthinkable. The double standard is appalling." Brown simply couldn't have won if he had been a woman -- but that doesn't mean that Coakley lost because she is one.

There is no denying that female politicians have struggled to be let into Massachusetts' boys club -- Coakley was vying to be the very first woman elected as state senator -- but the Bay State isn't particularly remarkable in that regard. Ruth Mandel, founder of Rutger's Center for American Women and Politics, told Politico: "I wouldn't say Massachusetts has a great story to tell for women in politics, nor is it a tragic, sad tale. It is a typical tale in women’s struggle to move forward in representation in elective politics." 

That isn't to say there isn't sexism in the state's political sphere or that male candidates don't have a leg up on their female counterparts. Per the usual, the media contributed its fair share of sexist stereotypes; consider Mike Barnicle's comparison of Coakley to an unpopular "substitute teacher" running against a beloved "high school football coach." But when political commentators label a state as "misogynist," it's important to weigh the actual merits of the claim and put them in perspective. The truth is women's political advancement within the state is actually "a little above the middle mark" compared to other states, according to Mandel. As Kornacki put it: She may be the eighth "woman from a major party to seek a Senate seat or the governorship in Massachusetts," and the eighth one to lose, but it's also "too simplistic to simply say Massachusetts is filled with sexist voters." Remember: Hillary Clinton won Massachusetts in the 2008 primary.

As much as I genuinely appreciate a man like Carroll sounding off about sexism, we can't afford to be so defensive and simplistic. If feminists cry misogyny one too many times, people will stop listening.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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Broadsheet Martha Coakley Scott Brown