The public flagellation over the loss in Massachusetts has started to consume Democrats, as nearly anyone could expect. But there’s one angle to this that has been strangely missing, a way of looking at it that we used to be able to count on – that Martha Coakley was a woman. Was that important? I happen to think that it was, but not necessarily in the way that most people might expect. If we’re going to prevent this kind of loss in the future, there are many lessons that we should learn. This is one of them.
There’s little doubt that a disconnect with reality has voters across the land are angry at politicians. I’ve seen the phrase “Fiddling while Rome burns” used several times recently, meaning that commentators are starting to reach back to really loathsome dictators from times past to explain the situation. But what images and myths do we really have at our disposal? Is it possible that we still have very distinct roles for women after all the progress we’ve made?
I’d like to start with the commentators because they are the most visible. Let’s try a simple thought experiment, if we can. Glenn Beck is a very popular commentator because he uses a lot of Capra-corn language to pine for the old days in desperate, dreamy way. But think about not just what he’s saying for a moment and how he is delivering it. Do this while you keep your breakfast down please (I like to make this blog a bit challenging!). Now, use that same delivery style with a woman making the pitch.
Suddenly, you go from Fox Superstar to Kindergarten teacher. It’s not a very effective message if you do nothing other than replace the person delivering the schtick with a woman.
Which logically takes us to Sarah Palin, who recently appeared with Glenn Beck for the first time. You could see in her eyes how wary she was of the whole situation, and for good reason. Say what you want about Palin, but she clearly knows that an acceptable role for her means she’s better off staying as far away from Beck as possible. Who is Sarah Palin? In her own words, a “Hockey Mom” – a “Pitbull in lipstick”.
Palin isn’t the only female commentator on Fox, of course. Ann Coulter has her routine, which as we all know is about as tough and nasty as they come. Imagine her routine being done by a man. Funny, it still works – and if anything you have Bill O’Reilly. That schtick works well no matter which gender delivers it. But try to imagine her just as a nasty woman without the legs and the long blonde hair for a moment, someone about as telegenic as O’Reilly in drag. It doesn’t work as well.
So we can establish easily enough using only right-wing examples that women have to be tough to make it at all, and that being good looking doesn’t hurt one bit. So let’s take the same cast of characters and switch out the message a bit and see what happens.
The first problem you run into is a simple one – how can you be tough and talk about Democrat standards like compassion and caring at the same time? The short answer is that you can’t. That’s why there is only one woman Senator who is a clear liberal standard-bearer, and that’s Diane Feinstein – who proved how tough she was long before she became a Senator. I don’t think I have to say a thing about Hilary Clinton, either.
It’s not as though women can’t be elected to public office. It’s that they have fewer mythological roles or frames that are open to them and higher expectations. They have to be even tougher than men. Ted Kennedy was a liberal, sure, but take the same Kennedy message and strip away the prestige and power that he wielded in the Senate for a moment. Use the same message of compassion and empowerment, and give it to a relatively unknown woman.
Is this difference worth something like the 6% margin that Coakley lost by? I’ll let you be the judge on that.
Difficult times are not going to be any better for women, either. On the one hand, women have a chance to pitch themselves as “outsiders”. But at the same time they have to answer to a public that is hungry for bold leadership and using ancient mythologies that involve the fall of Rome and the Founding Fathers – there wasn’t a Mother in the bunch, after all. What is the image of a woman who is a leader, a strong figure? How can they do that while being unapologetically “liberal”?
The short answer is that they can’t. Women still have a different standard that they have to live up to. It’s not impossible, but when most statewide elections are competitive and furious, the old images are a serious handicap. That could have been enough to make the difference in a special election, too.
I’m not in any way endorsing this situation – in fact, I find it rather disgusting that we still have defined roles for women that restrict them in leadership positions. But stating it blankly is the first step towards having a real discussion about a problem that I, for one, think, is a very real problem.