It’s been a bad week for Attorney General candidate Warren Tolman. It’s been a bad 226 years for women in politics here in the Commonwealth as the Bay State has sent a nearly exclusively male delegation to Washington since its founding.
Warren Tolman has a real problem with that abysmal record and can accurately boast a strong record on women’s issues – especially reproductive choice. So as the September 9th Democratic primary for Attorney General headed into its final two weeks, and voters began to redirect sun drenched summers to fall politics, the fact that a male and female are running against each other for Attorney General received little play among regular voters. Both Tolman and current Assistant Attorney General Maura Healey are strong candidates. Both are good on women’s issues. If anything, Tolman was more actively courting the female vote (if not women’s interest groups like Emily’s List) with a series of campaign commercials vowing to protect the safety of those accessing healthcare at women’s clinics. Many progressives felt privately torn – while they liked the idea of electing the first openly gay female AG with Healey, they like Tolman’s activist vision for the AG’s office better. The polls showed a statistical deadheat with plenty of room for movement.
And then Tolman called Maura Healey’s behavior “unbecoming” in an August 26th Boston Globe OpDebate in response to a direct and pressing questions from Healey about his role in a hedge fund and lobbyist credentials. Let’s be clear here: more people in Massachusetts watched QVC from 3-4am than actually sought out the on-line AG debate. But the “unbecoming” remark has reach far beyond the viewing audience.
Tough men get elected in politics. Tough women have their “likeability” questioned. And the research shows this quandary for female candidates time-and-time again. Thus, for many women and feminist men, “unbecoming” conjures forth the tightrope female candidates walk and is a synonym of common verbal jabs thrown female candidates way like bitch, unladylike, harsh, cold, and brash.
I have no doubt Warren Tolman did not intend these synonyms when he called Maura Healy “unbecoming.” He is on the correct side of feminist issues for Democratic primary voters and apologized “if anyone was offended.” But Warren Tolman, like all of us, is socialized in a culture where women are expected to be simultaneously talented, competent, physically attractive, and appealing. And apologizing “if anyone was offended” is not the same as Tolman apologizing because it was wrong. A tough line of questions is nothing new in a debate from an opposing candidate. But a tough line of questions from an unapologetically (and equally) ambitious female candidate is not the norm. Rather than respond first to the charges Healey leaved, Tolman’s gut response was that she was “unbecoming.”
As is the case in the Governor’s race, many Democratic men in Massachusetts cannot understand how they can be on the “correct” side of women’s issues and still exhibit sexism. How, goes this logic, can one advocate for pay equity and/or reproductive course if he is not “all good” with women? The answer is simple: one can be genuinely committed to women’s issues while still exhibiting and acting on subtle sexism. A recent article where Senator Kirsten Gillibrand talks of Democratic (and Republican) Senators appraising her body and sharing these appraisals make this point in the starkest terms.
Blue Massachusetts has a terrible record of electing women – one of the worst in the 50 states. And Democratic men run this state. So, yes, men can be cognitively for women’s rights while affectively holding sexist attitudes and voicing sexist comments. One does not preclude the other – though male Democratic party elites and their apologists often like (choose?) think so.