Is Mass. Liberal Enough To Vote For Warren?

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, left, greets supporters during a campaign stop at a senior center in Medford Wednesday. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, left, greets supporters during a campaign stop at a senior center in Medford Wednesday. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

BOSTON — Get this: Progressive Massachusetts — the lone state that tilted for dove George McGovern in 1972 and has legalized same-sex marriage — has never once elected a woman to the U.S. Senate. Or to the Corner Office on Beacon Hill.

Getting women more involved in high-level politics has been a refrain for decades nationally. But Massachusetts stands out as a relatively strong male bastion, especially in New England.

Just across the border, New Hampshire is currently served by two women U.S. senators. Maine has two, too. Connecticut — in many ways the most similar New England state to Massachusetts — has elected multiple women governors.

But not Massachusetts. Maybe there’s something to the state motto: Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem. Translation: With a sword, she seeks quiet peace under liberty.

So, Why Hasn’t Mass. Voted For Women At That Level?

“One of the biggest barriers to women in Massachusetts is men don’t want to give up power,” said Carol Hardy-Fanta, a senior scholar at the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Hardy-Fanta says working in state government or the Legislature has long offered a proven path to wealth and influence. Lawmakers often parlay their State House experience into well-paying positions after leaving politics. Even disgraced House Speaker Thomas Finneran landed a reported $416,000 salary as president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council upon resigning from the Legislature.

“They say politics is a blood sport here,” she said. “It is everywhere. I mean, everybody wants power! But men [here] are never going to give this up without a really big fight.”

In some ways, Massachusetts’ long tradition of Democratic rule has entrenched male dominance in politics.

“Massachusetts was founded by the Puritans,” reminded Victoria Budson, the executive director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “Some of that sense of Puritan propriety and norms and expected sets of behaviors has remained.”

After all, as a rule, political races favor incumbents. In this state, a long line of male incumbents has made it harder for women to break in. So has the nature of the Massachusetts State House as a professional legislature. It’s the only state legislature in New England that pays considerable salaries and treats lawmaking more or less as a full-time occupation; Budson says the remaining New England states are citizen legislatures.

“Legislatures that were traditionally low-pay and low-status had lots of women,” she said.

Today one out of four Massachusetts lawmakers is a woman, which is the median nationally. To Budson, that’s a shame, considering Massachusetts has the highest proportion of highly educated women nationally.

Gender In The U.S. Senate Race

So could the gender barrier prove to be a deciding undercurrent in Elizabeth Warren’s challenge of incumbent U.S. Sen. Scott Brown?

After all, the Wrentham Republican won Edward M. Kennedy’s seat in 2010 campaigning as a likable fellow driving a pickup truck and wearing a barn coat. And he beat another woman, Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Gender has played a role from pretty much the very start of Brown’s re-election campaign.

Last year, Warren was asked during a Democratic primary debate how she paid for her college education. “I kept my clothes on,” she said, and the audience laughed. It was a clear reference to Brown, who bore all in Cosmopolitan to help launch modeling work and pay for law school.

In a radio interview after the Democrats’ debate, WZLX-FM’s Kevin Karlson asked Brown to respond to Warren saying she didn’t take her clothes off.

“Thank God!” Brown said, laughing. Brown took some heat for the comment. He said he was just responding in kind to Warren’s wisecrack.

Now, during the final month of the race, gender looms large, at least in the polls. Warren leads Brown among likely women voters. The two candidates are more closely split among likely male voters.

Brown has been running TV spots such as “Women for Brown” to try to chip into Warren’s lead among women. Other ads show him embracing his wife, a former TV reporter, or posing for the camera with his two accomplished daughters.

Warren has been trying to fight off Brown’s attempts to woo the votes of women. In their debate Monday, Warren said Brown’s congressional record shows he’s not a strong advocate for women’s issues.

“The women in Massachusetts deserve a senator they can count on not some of the time,” she said, “but a senator they can count on all of the time.”

“You should stop scaring women, professor,” Brown retorted. “Because I’ve been fighting for women since I was 6 years old.” To some viewers, it sounded childish. However, Brown was referring to how he had to intervene for years to protect his mother from spousal abuse.

Many Massachusetts voters say gender stereotypes should not decide this potentially pivotal U.S. Senate race.

“It just doesn’t influence me,” said Boston retiree Mike Lloyd. “I don’t care whether he’s tall or handsome, or that she’s not 25 and ravishingly beautiful.”

Other say that it matters a great deal to them that Warren is running as a woman in this race.

“We need more women in the world putting a mark on this town,” said Michelle Burrell, of Boston. “Boston is full of majority men not ruling, but running the town.”

Even so, Burrell doesn’t think being a woman will prevent Warren from winning the election. “It’s more the economics. Who’s gonna do right by women and men? And if she proves her point to men, then she got the men all for her.”

Three times in the past ten years, Massachusetts voters have had the option of voting a woman major party candidate nominee to the U.S. Senate or to the governor’s office. Each time they declined. Twice, Republican men won. Mitt Romney defeated Shannon O’Brien. Brown beat Coakley. Both women were arguably poorer candidates than Warren presents today. In a gubernatorial race, Democrat Deval Patrick defeated Republican Kerry Healey.

But one thing is slightly different today: precedence. It’s slowing changing. Women now lead the Massachusetts Senate majority faction, the state auditor’s office and the office of the attorney general. (Coakley jokes that Massachusetts voters twice asked her to stay on as attorney general.)

“Here in Massachusetts, we are seeing more and more women in political leadership,” said Budson, of Harvard’s Kennedy School. “That is giving people the opportunity to when they look at Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren, to compare them as candidates. And not just think, ‘Oh, Elizabeth Warren’s a woman, that’s different.’ “

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on wbur.org.
  • Frank


    Massachusetts had a woman Governor.  Jane Swift.  Remember?

    And WBUR and The Globe hounded her mercilessly.

    What a bunch of hypocrites you are.

    Thanks for a solid reason not to donate during your pledge drive.

    • Check Your Facts

      jane Swift was not elected as Governor of MA.  She was elected as Lt. Gov..  There is a huge difference.  She only became Governor when Paul Cellucci left office early.  She was succeeded by Mitt Romney (who also chose a female running mate).  Female running mates gather votes.  Check your facts before you call people hypocrites!

    • http://www.lindamerrill.com Linda Merrill

       Well, they are careful to say “elected” a woman. Jane Swift was never elected, she took over for Paul Celluci when he went to work in the Bush administration. But you’re right, Swift was hounded mercilessly and while I like Romney, it was obvious at the time that the male power structure on the Republican side shoved her aside for him when he decided to run for governor. That said, she was a bit of a mess and Romney was a more accomplished candidate. But it’s also noteworthy that traditionally Democratic women’s organizations (Emily’s list, etc) would never support a Republican women (Swift, Healy) while yammering about the need for more women in higher places in government. If Swift had been a Dem, she would have been lauded for holding teleconferences while in labor. As it was, crickets…

    • http://twitter.com/CurtNickisch Curt Nickisch

      Jane Swift was formally “Acting Governor” because she took over when Governor Celucci took an ambassadorial post.  Massachusetts voters did not elect her to the office.

  • Ben Hammer

    The answer is to treat everyone equally, vote for the best person for the job and let the demographic chips fall where they may.

  • J__o__h__n

    If the story is about MA voters’ reluctance to vote for women, the headline should reflect that and not use a loaded headline like is MA liberal enough. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kathy-Wnuk/100000450245663 Kathy Wnuk

    I don’t give a crap what the gender is – why the need to have a divisive headline? Independents in MA (like myself) are by and large socially liberal, but they don’t like the idea of Warren saying “give me your money, I’ll make sure it gets distributed properly.” I’d love to vote for a woman….but I’m not voting for a woman just because someone thinks I should. Just like I wouldn’t blindly vote for a party or race.

  • Mary

    WE would never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever take a woman seriously in politics if she took her clothes off for a published magazine photgraph of a “photo spread”.  And yet.. we took Scott Brown seriously, and put him in office.  So yes, state is very sexist, and the media doesn’t help.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000753377770 Joachim Kriegel

    What a stupid headline! We live in the most liberal state, with educated people and we are not dominated by a party that hates women, latinos and gays. I rather prefer a women with brain compared to a guy who drives around in a truck and votes Republican every time it counts. Elisabeth Warren is what this State need! 

    • Marybethwilliams

      What a stupid comment. You are condescending jerk. People like you are why the rest of the country hates Massachusetts.

  • Ben Hammer

    Replacing a thoughtful legislator with a partisan bomb-thrower would be a real shame.

  • Gcrea

    As a father of three daughters, I’d be happy to vote for a woman, especially if she were someone like Olympia Snowe.  

    But unfortunately, Elizabeth Warren strikes me as WAY too radical.  Lord knows we don’t need to send another Nancy Pelosi to Washington (or even worse, a Barbara Boxer!!).  

    • LeonardNicodemo

       Agree to disagree, but her “radicalism” (not as heavy as the right would have you believe) is exactly why I want her in Washington.

    • http://www.facebook.com/activebz Bettina Zwerdling

      Radical for wanting the middle class to have a fair deal?  Radical for telling the truth that ‘the game is rigged’ and we have corruption in the buying of our elected officials and for the lies, part-lies and omissions spoken by most of the Republican party

      • GCRE

        According to the non-partisan COB, the top 10 of income earners are already paying 50% of the taxes in our society. That doesn’t seem “rigged” to me — in fact, it sounds like they’re paying more than their “fair share”. Its no wonder that the rich are balking at pouring any more money into the black hole of federal government spending.

      • Benhammer286

        Whereas legislative committees chaired by her party have “rigged”the game so banks who play ball with them get bailed out and the rest of us get the bill, I hardly see her as the one to be promising you a”fair deal”.

  • Birddog2012

    Warren’s forthright ability to speak truth to power, proven willingness to take the lead in asking the hard questions of  even her own party’s leadership and her desire to move the countries governance beyond  the mere  ideological and toward the rational and practical is refreshing.  And the fact that she is a women in a  state that has never elected a women to a high leadership position makes her run for the Senate of even more historical importance.

Most Popular