About a month ago, I fled from a Massachusetts women-in-politics event about halfway through. For reasons unknown to me at the time, I felt angry, sad and confused — I had to make my escape.
At first, I attributed my feelings to that familiar goblin of grief. My husband, Chuck, died just over a year ago and February is a month full of personal land mines. I haven’t made many public appearances in the last year: I find these large events that I used to tackle with gusto hard to navigate with my new widow persona.
It took my (in)famous three-hour drive home to Williamstown and a few workouts to get to the essence of my frustration — and surprise: it wasn’t grief.
In Massachusetts, women in politics are achieving extraordinary things: Maura Healey, our first woman elected governor; Kim Driscoll, her lieutenant governor; Andrea Campbell, the attorney general; Karen Spilka, the Senate president. Lots of women in positions of power. So many things to celebrate.
But here I am: the proverbial skunk at the garden party. I’ve been trying to understand why.
When Kim Janey ascended to become the first woman, and first woman of color, to serve as Boston’s mayor, I urged the Boston press to read the research on women’s political coverage — often referred to as “hair, hemlines and husbands.”
A quick Google search will reveal my hard-won experience in this realm. The majority of press coverage of my tenure as Massachusetts’ governor focused on my appearance (the hair and the hemlines), and the audacity of my decision to start a family as a happily married working woman in her mid-30s.
But in recent months, I have apparently re-emerged in a more sympathetic light. The Boston Globe is intrigued by my farm, my goats and chickens; they were eager to ask my advice for Gov. Healey. A Boston Magazine writer came out to Williamstown to make amends, of sorts, apologizing for showing up on my doorstep, uninvited, two decades ago.
In that Boston Magazine article, the writer recounts the night, as a young reporter, when she managed to make her way to our rural front door. I remember that night vividly, even if I didn’t remember the exact reporter who came knocking. As she put it: I chewed her out for violating my privacy (whilst standing in my bathrobe, “enormously pregnant” with twins).
What I’ve never discussed, though — for that recent piece or any other — is what made me so upset that evening.
My husband’s uncle, poor, lightly educated but with an eye for the ladies, was the first person to greet the reporter at an upstairs door. Back then, our house was home to older people struggling with health issues and their many cats. We could barely afford to convert it to a two-family dwelling. We’d even declined to invite Natalie Jacobsen of WCBV-TV to our farm for the requisite interview when I became governor, because I felt embarrassed. We weren’t poor, but we were only steps from it. Chuck and my closest confidants had already figured out that much of the vile commentary directed at my life and my looks were as much (or more) about class bias as gender bias.
I didn’t fit the profile of what a governor should look like, and I paid for it dearly. I’ve never forgotten that feeling.
The muscle memory of that discomfort and shame, came flooding back to me at that Massachusetts women-in-politics soiree.
At the event, power player after power player centered their conversations with me on my hair and appearance. You look great. I love your hair. Love that outfit.
To be honest, by traditional beauty standards, I do look better. As a suddenly single mom to three fabulous 20-something daughters, I now have longer, naturally gray hair and I’m getting more expensive haircuts. My wardrobe has also improved. (Though I remain a sale maven!) Grief has gotten me on a consistent workout schedule and an inconsistent eating schedule — though I’d go back to having bad hair and extra pounds in a heartbeat if it meant having Chuck by my side.
But in interaction after interaction, I was being lauded, at last, for attaining some superficial signal of “woman-to-be-admired.” I couldn’t bear it.
I recently read this great blog post about the "perils of over-confirmation" and I realized: no matter how well-intentioned, the incessant focus on my appearance — even as a positive — was just as diminishing as the negative. My worth was still tied to my hair and physique, and it frustrated me just as much as the press coverage did two decades ago. Perhaps even more so coming from a room full of empowered women who should know better.
I was being lauded, at last, for attaining some superficial signal of 'woman-to-be admired.' I couldn’t bear it.
This is nerve-wracking to write, but my grief has given me courage. As I learned many years ago from my work with the iconic Sally Ride (I worked for a decade with her on STEM issues), you cannot beat unintended and implicit bias by remaining silent.
I have worked incredibly hard for 20 years to create more opportunities for young women, to define excellence in education and fundamentally change my family’s financial profile. Yet not one person asked me about my work.
It’s similar to when I became lieutenant governor (and then governor), how few people remembered the work I did as a state senator on child protective services, small group health insurance reform and dairy pricing policy.
Of course, like many others, I have been cheered by the progress women have made, while knowing it isn’t enough. But it’s not just men who are getting things wrong — women are, too. The world remains entirely too focused on hair, hemlines and husbands. And the implicit bias against women continues to be fueled not just by gender, but also race and class. Even those of us who fight it, practice it.
Gov. Healey is already setting the right example. Each time we've spoken she's been interested to learn about my work in education innovation and the non-profit I started on my farm.
So the next time you are at a work event — no matter how pink or festive — condition yourself to make your first comment about work.
This segment aired on March 16, 2023.