Yes, you read that headline right. And if you did not blink, or better yet recoil in disgust, then you are a part of the problem. Last week, GoLocalWorcester published Nicholas Handy’s more measured piece on the role of women’s issues could play in differentiating the three Democrats hoping to win the gubanatorial primary. But headlines matter and this one is a doosey: “Is Coakley Using Women’s Issues as a Campaign Crutch?” Hard to imagine Massachusetts has one of the worst records in electing women, eh?
It’s important to spell out why, exactly, this headline is so problematic. It directly suggests women’s issues are less important than other issues to the voters of Massachusetts and only a candidate in trouble would prominently feature women’s issues. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Candidates of all political stripes and genders run on issues they “own” and have both legitimacy and competence within. In political science, we call this “issue ownership” and it is fundamental to successful campaigning and legislating.
No one asked Mitt Romney, for instance, to not stress how his background in business and finance could advantage Massachusetts when he ran for governor. In the GoLocalWorcester piece itself, Steve Grossman seeks to change the conversation stressing his own acumen in job creation saying:
Women’s rights issues are very important and we are all doing our part to speak to the issues. But when we get down to the last part of this campaign, I think that voters are going to look at the number one issue in Massachusetts right now: job creation. This is something that I have proven that I can do.
I am 100% confident that Grossman will never face a headline questioning whether his attempt to shift the conversation to job creation is a “campaign crutch” — even as his own polling shows him 23 points down against Coakley.
Candidates can and should stress the issues they know best and have a proven track record. Thus is a key way they appeal to voters. For Attorney General Martha Coakley, women’s reproductive rights, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision on the MA buffer zone law she was integral in passing, are a highlight in her resume that can capture the dollars and turnout of Massachusetts women who support a pro-choice agenda. Handy uses a quote of mine to make this point at the end of the article and he is a strong reporter with whom I enjoy talking. The headline nonetheless begs the reader to belittle Martha Coakley’s strength on women’s issues in ways that have not been the case for male candidates. It rests on an unstated premise that women’s issues are not “real” issues or are “soft” secondary issues.
Editors have an increasingly difficult job of not only producing solid journalism but getting readers to their site with provocative headlines. The moral of this story is clear though: Sexy headlines need not be sexist.