Nowhere to Run

Under the chandeliers of the Swissôtel ballroom, the front-line troops of female political activism have gathered to raise money for the Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus at the second annual Good Guys Awards lunch, honoring male bigwigs for their efforts in “achieving equality for women.” The tables are filled, the company is convivial, and the cold herbed chicken is perched appetizingly atop beds of Asian-style noodles. All the trimmings are in place for a festive occasion. Once upon a time, this event looked like it might even be a historic moment of celebration for warriors in the long uphill struggle to elect women to high political office in Massachusetts.

Only seven women have ever held statewide or federal elective office here, three of them lieutenant governors who sneaked in alongside male gubernatorial running mates. That's a dismal record when compared with other New England states such as Maine, where both U.S. senators are female, or Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont, which have all elected women governors at one time or another. But after a promising 1998 election in which state Treasurer Shannon O'Brien became the first woman elected statewide in her own right and Jane Swift won the lieutenant governorship on the ticket with Paul Cellucci, there was cause for hope. As late as February 2002, female activists were salivating at the prospect of a gubernatorial matchup pitting Swift, by then the acting governor, against O'Brien. There was excitement over the possibility that one of two veteran state senators, Marian Walsh of West Roxbury or Linda Melconian of Springfield, might win the contest to succeed the departing Tom Birmingham and become the first woman president of the state Senate. The future of women in Massachusetts politics had never looked brighter.

Then, after bumbling her way to rock-bottom public-approval ratings, Swift was sent packing by Mitt Romney. Melconian and Walsh were muscled aside by Senator Robert Travaglini for the Senate presidency. And O'Brien, after an impressive win in the Democratic primary, crashed and burned in her face-off against Romney.

No wonder the mood in the Swissôtel ballroom is darker than the chocolate bonbons on the dessert platter. The heartiest cheers of the event come when 14 female painters and glaziers are introduced. That's 13 more than the number of women who hold high elective office here. Former GOP state Senator William Saltonstall, one of the function's honorees, acknowledges the presence of that lone female success story, Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, by noting exultantly that “I've supported her in three elections, and we finally got her there.” Only about a third of the mostly Democratic crowd bothers to applaud. Perhaps the rest are still mulling over the observation of another honoree, former Massachusetts Secretary of State Paul Guzzi, that when it comes to electing women, “we have too many high-sounding words and too few actions to go with them.”

Veteran Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh watches from the back of the room.”It's so depressing,” Marsh says of the nightmarish series of female electoral failures. “When will it ever end?”

Plenty of women are asking the same question these days. So are men who think that half the population deserves more than meager representation in the top seats of power. And the answers aren't encouraging.

O'Brien and, to a lesser extent, Swift exemplified what local activists had held to be the model of an ideal female candidate: They were savvy, experienced pols who proved their toughness, solidly pro-choice candidates who could appeal to men while enjoying an inside track on the women's vote. But that model has been exposed as deeply flawed, even obsolete. Abortion rights, one of the few issues that conveyed a reliable base of financial and political support to women candidates, now seems more a hindrance than a help to them. The election results have cast serious doubt on the long-standing notion that female candidates are better positioned to appeal to the voters' desire for fresh thinking and independence — and even on the premise that exploiting the gender gap itself is an effective strategy for women.

“If you're a guy's girl, then that's a problem. If you're a girl's girl, that's a problem,” moans Marsh. “What kind of woman can win here?” Adds Jane Lane, spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party: “What the hell can anyone do to get women elected here? Does it take Pamela Anderson with half a brain?”

There's a scary thought. But those expressions of frustration speak to a common complaint — that women candidates are still more subject than men to critical scrutiny of their appearance and style. A study by the Cambridge-based Barbara Lee Family Foundation summed it up this way: “Female candidates walk a tightrope in attempting to present a persona that's neither too strong and aggressive — too 'male' — nor too soft. The challenge is to strike a balance and exhibit toughness when necessary, but in a way that makes the public feel comfortable.”

O'Brien, who cites the Lee study as an influence on her campaign, says her gender handcuffed her when she repeatedly flashed her now infamous smirk of bemused contempt at Romney during their televised debates. Gender bias affects “how people react to the way you look, how you sound, and, yes, indeed, to the way you smile,” she says. But no less an authority than former Lieutenant Governor Evelyn Murphy — the Brookline Democrat who in 1986 was the first woman ever to serve in statewide office before dropping out of a disastrous run for governor in 1990 — notes that O'Brien's smirk served her well during a contentious Democratic primary victory over four men. “Clearly, Shannon was seen to be tough enough. That's how she got through the primary,” says Murphy. But in the final matchup against the genial Romney, Murphy says, that same style “wasn't appealing.”

Meanwhile, in a general election race that ended with a ringing rejection of the political establishment, O'Brien surrounded herself with male icons of the status quo. (Photos in both Boston dailies after O'Brien's primary win showed the unpopular visage of House Speaker Tom Finneran over her shoulder.) “I was a person who had served in office in a year when people were looking for an outsider,” a rueful O'Brien says now.

So much for the assumption that insider credentials are a must for a woman to win high elective office here, or that a woman candidate's gender alone can somehow insulate her from being perceived as one of the boys. The last few years have also done a number on another cliché — that the abortion-rights views of the majority of the voters give pro-choice female candidates an automatic edge, especially among women.

State Senator Cheryl Jacques bet the farm on the abortion issue in her 2001 campaign for the late Joe Moakley's congressional seat, calculating that suburban women would snub anti-abortion front-runner Stephen Lynch. But Lynch wound up an easy winner, partly because of the contrast between Jacques's strident single-issue approach and Lynch's similarities to another pro-life son of Southie: the beloved Moakley himself.

O'Brien's fervent defense in the climactic final debate against Romney of a 16-year-old's right to choose an abortion without parental consent apparently appalled significant numbers of voters. Catholic voters went for Romney, a Mormon from Michigan, over the homegrown pro-choice Catholic O'Brien, by more than two-to-one, even though O'Brien spent much of the campaign arguing that Romney couldn't be trusted to protect the right to choose. Abortion “wasn't an overriding issue,” notes Jane Lane. That shouldn't have come as a surprise. National polls show that abortion rights ranks low on the issue priority list of both men and women these days.

If that isn't enough to overturn the conventional wisdom of gender politics, consider the results of exit polls conducted during November's gubernatorial election. Despite earlier polling that showed O'Brien benefiting from the gender gap, she actually won the women's vote by only four points, less than half the margin Democrat Scott Harshbarger rolled up over Cellucci in 1998. Meanwhile, Romney won among male voters by a 13-point landslide. Women aged 18 to 25 voted 57 percent to 41 percent for Romney — a white, male Republican who is personally against abortion. “Young women today have never known an environment where there was not freedom of choice, protection of equal rights, equality in women's sports,” observes Nancy Achin Audesse, a former Republican state senator and chair of the Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus Good Guys luncheon. “So it may be difficult for some of those young women when they hear warnings and whining from female candidates.”

Therein lies a sobering message for all the women at the luncheon who, truth be told, would rather be honoring a new crop of female political power brokers than paying half-hearted homage to supportive good guys. It may be time to recognize that the shelf life has expired on a generation of thinking about how to get women elected. “There's much, much more than just women's issues,” says newly elected state Representative Susan Gifford, a Republican from Wareham. “That's the wrong way to go. We represent more than just women.”