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.’ “