Yvonne Abraham

Merit over gender

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / September 13, 2009

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A lot of people think they know how I’m going to vote in this winter’s special election for the US Senate, and I find that mighty annoying.

The conventional wisdom forming around the race for Edward M. Kennedy’s Senate seat is that Martha Coakley will ride the women’s vote to victory. The attorney general is the only woman in a field with several men. They will split much of the men’s vote, the thinking goes, and the women will all line up behind the one candidate who looks like them.

Already, EMILY’s List, the powerful PAC that steers money to women candidates, has endorsed Coakley. Cambridge philanthropist Barbara Lee has thrown her valuable support behind her. A lot of the women who gave Hillary Clinton a resounding victory in last year’s Democratic state primary are embracing Coakley’s cause (The attorney general cast her vote for Clinton at the national convention even after Obama clinched the nomination).

Those groups are fired up, and you can understand why. For a state that is supposed to be progressive, our record of electing women is pretty pathetic. Only four women have ever won statewide office in Massachusetts, but never the state’s top job. We just sent our first woman in 25 years to the US House of Representatives. We have never elected a woman to the US Senate.

And look at the fields for the three major races that currently captivate us: Of all of the candidates clamoring to become our next governor, US senator, or Boston mayor, Coakley is the only woman.

I’d love to see a woman from Massachusetts in the US Senate, not just in the interests of equality, but because truly democratic government should reflect the population it serves.

But, as embarrassed as I am at the appalling absence of women in the state’s highest political reaches, I won’t be casting my vote for Kennedy’s replacement on the basis of identity politics. The assumption that Coakley has a lock on my vote because we share a couple of chromosomes insults both of us.

Like most people, I know little so far about what kind of senator Coakley would be. She supports expanding access to health care, but where is she on foreign policy matters, on education? I’ve been impressed with some of the things she has done as attorney general, taking on the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and holding utilities’ feet to the fire for shoddy service. But I would have liked more bold stands in her two years as the state’s top law enforcer. I admire her resolve and strength as a prosecutor, but what is her wider vision for the commonwealth?

We’ll learn a lot more about her in the next couple of months, and see how she measures up against the others who want the job. If she doesn’t stack up, I won’t vote for her, as painful as that will be. But if she proves to be her opponents’ equal, or better, I’ll take great pride in checking the box next to her name.

Here’s what I’d like to see, even more than a woman in that Senate seat: three women on the ballot, or four or five. And dozens more in the pipeline, gunning for offices all over the state - so many that Coakley’s gender would barely register. Then we wouldn’t feel pressured into voting for her because she’s the only woman. And people wouldn’t assume Coakley can sail into the Senate just because she’s a woman.

Clearly, as far as women in politics go, Massachusetts should be much further along than it is. But we should also be further along than electing candidates merely on the basis of gender.

If we’re going to make Martha Coakley a US senator, let’s do it on her merits, and not because she’s a woman. She deserves no less than that.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at