Renee Loth

The look of women in politics

(Kim Rosen Illustration)
By Renee Loth
December 11, 2009

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WHEN PEOPLE say there’s no real difference between the way men and women in public life approach the issues, I am reminded of a pop quiz my seventh-grade biology teacher thought up, which I flunked. The quiz was simple: match the parts of the human body to the parts of a car. So the lungs were matched with the carburetor, the spark plugs were the nervous system, joints were like shock absorbers - or something. I am sure I still have it wrong.

The point is that almost all of the 13-year-old boys in the class aced the test and the girls - even ones who knew the functions of the human body cold - failed. Most of us had never looked under the hood of a car. We had a different reference for understanding the material, which the teacher (male, of course) never considered. With the exception of a press conference and rally Martha Coakley held to tout the endorsement of prominent women back in September, the winner of Tuesday’s Democratic US Senate primary rarely mentioned her unique frame of reference. She didn’t have to; her voice and appearance instantly marked her as different, and her campaign feared over-emphasizing gender might alienate moderates.

But Coakley’s reticence has left voters - even some who supported her - wondering just what difference it would make to send the state’s first woman to the US Senate.

Is it enough to say that women deserve to be elected to high office as a matter of sheer equity? Women are 51 percent of the US population, after all, but just 17 percent of the US Senate. That’s unfair on its face.

Or is there is a deeper, more interesting question to engage, the one Sonia Sotomayor determinedly dodged throughout her confirmation hearing to the US Supreme Court earlier this year: Do women judge or prioritize matters of public policy differently than men?

Women at Coakley’s victory rally Tuesday night certainly think so. “Men take too many risks, they’re too aggressive, there’s not enough concern about families,’’ said Joyce Paul of Medford. With Coakley, she said, “I hope we won’t go to war so easily. I want to go to peace, and education.’’

“Women appreciate collaboration and negotiation,’’ said Pat Keane of Reading. “We’ve had to learn to negotiate just to run our families.’’

Too many women in public life have shied away from such answers - a hangover from the 1970s, perhaps, when many believed achieving equality meant imitating the styles and approaches of men. Pat Schroeder explicitly built toward her run for president in 1988 by getting a seat on the Armed Services Committee. In 2000, New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen vetoed a bill abolishing the state’s death penalty. Hillary Clinton supported the Iraq war. Coakley began her career as a prosecutor. Even today one of the best compliments for a female professional is to be called “tough.’’ That women might see the issues through a different prism is something worth promoting, not hiding. Women doctors have pushed for more research into breast cancer. Women lawyers bring gender discrimination and sexual harassment cases. Domestic violence was quietly tolerated in society before women started joining police forces - and newsrooms. Collectively, having women in positions of influence rewrites every equation.Of course, individual women aren’t always so reliable. It may be an embarrassment that Massachusetts has only elected three women to Congress in the last 50 years. But Margaret Heckler and Louise Day Hicks, at least, weren’t winning any prizes for advancing women’s rights. And two women senators voted to keep the odious abortion restrictions in the health reform bill this week.So Coakley will need to chart her own course. In her primary victory speech, she invoked the example of Founding Feminists Lucy Stone and Abigail Adams. But I thought of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who urged women to “regard themselves not as adjectives but as nouns.’’ For Stanton, it was progress for women to move from descriptions - pretty, demure, nurturing - to persons: teachers, mothers, or (Stanton hoped) voters.

In 2009, women like Coakley should become verbs: active participants who are fighting, loving, negotiating, running for high office, and (why not?) learning auto mechanics.

Reneé Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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