Most Gendered Headline of Campaign Season: “Is Coakley Using Women’s Issues as a Campaign Crutch?”

 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.

About Erin O'Brien

Dr. Erin O’Brien is Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science at The University of Massachusetts Boston as well as the co-director of the Scholar Strategy Network, Boston chapter. She is a frequent commentator for NPR and other news outlets on American politics, voter access, inequality, and representation. Dr. O’Brien’s scholarship has been extensively covered by media outlets and organizations including: The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Daily Beast, The Dallas Morning News, Huffington Post, The Houston Chronicle, The London School of Economics, The Miami Times, Melissa Harris Perry Show, the New York Times Editorial Board, Project Vote, Salon, Slate, The Takeaway w/ John Hockenberry, Talking Points Memo, Up with Steve Kornacki, and Washington Post. She has published two books and has articles appearing in journals such as the American Journal of Political Science, Perspectives on Politics, Political Research Quarterly, and Women & Politics. Dr. O’Brien has given keynote lectures and talks for audiences including the League of Women Voters United States, Harvard Ethical Society, the Center of American Political Studies and Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at Harvard, University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute, the National Community Tax Coalition, and to international audiences in Greece, China, and South Korea.
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12 Responses to Most Gendered Headline of Campaign Season: “Is Coakley Using Women’s Issues as a Campaign Crutch?”

  1. Jim Walsh says:

    As a father of hardworking, well-educated and successful daughters, I am a supporter of “women’s issues” but, that description does not make me automatically a supporter of women’s issues because there are a variety of opinions on what women’s issues are. But my guess is that I share many political opinions with the author. The question in my mind is “what are the limits of identity politics?”

    I note, for instance, that my delegation to the Democratic Convention was split, 50-50, on who should be Attorney General. The men supported the candidate who was a woman and the women supported the candidate who was a man, a phenomenon that was both interesting and refreshing, I thought.

    But are values derived from identity? Is competence derived from identity, or effectiveness, or skill? What was a white male to do in 2008? I couldn’t identify with either the white woman or the black guy. Voting for the white guy was out of the question…even though parts of our identities were the same.

    At the moment this question is playing out in the 6th District Congressional race. A challenger to John Tierney is running mainly on his identity. At an event a few months ago he introduced himself to a voter and asked for his support. “Why should I vote for you?” he was asked. “Because I’m a vet,” was the answer. “Me too,” the voter replied. “So am I. So what? What else ya got?”

    There must be some interesting political science on the difference between an “attribute” and an “identity” and when one becomes the other. Some combination of ideas, values and experience pretty much determine who I will support. In the 6th District, the guy who is not a vet has done more for vets than any other Congressman that has ever represented our district (as far as I know). And I certainly know that just because a person is black, white, male, female, gay or straight does not automatically mean that they are a better candidate with better values and ideas. Maybe…maybe not. So I agree with the author that the headline was Foxy (note the capital “F”) but the question underlining it might be quite legitimate. Is a candidate using identity to obscure other, perhaps more problematic, elements in his or her candidacy? That’s a legitimate question.

  2. Jeff Semon says:

    “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.”

    I agree with Ed, Mr Walsh said it pretty well.

    I disagree with Professor O’Brien somewhat on the quote above. I think it is a prominently feature BECAUSE it is an important issue to many voters and consumes the media/time bandwidth more than immigration, DCF, the health connector and a litany of other items.

    Time will tell, but if Coakley’s campaign turns into a rehash of 2012, rather than why she’d be a competent executive, we’ll have our answer to the headline.

    Interesting post though….

  3. Dr. Ed says:

    “If your name were ‘Edward Moore’, your candidacy would be a joke.”

    It was August 27, 1962, and that is essentially how Edward McCormack concluded his debate against a then-young man whose middle name was Moore — Edward Moore Kennedy — and as we all know, Ted Kennedy would go on to not only serve in the US Senate for nearly half a century but be a contender for the Presidency in 1980.

    But in the Summer of 1962, but for his last name and family connections, well…

    And would a Matthew Coakley have ever been elected Attorney General let alone be a contender for the corner office? If Martha Coakley were male, would her candidacy “be a joke.”

    If we believe in equality, that’s a fair question to ask. And if the answer is “yes” then we have some serious soul-searching to do. If we truly believe in equality.

  4. John Howard says:

    I didn’t read the article yet, but it does seem like Coakley is attempting to split the “other priorities” voters between Berwick and Grossman and secure all the “women’s issues” voters for herself, by making it seem like a vote for one of the males is a vote for WEEI and misogyny.

  5. John Howard says:

    Here Ryan puts it this way on BMG:

    this can do nothing but help her(1+ / 0-) View voters
    Especially now that the corporate/guest boycotts of weei have begun, shaming D&C, as well as the network.

    She was never going to win the misogynistic and/or D&C crowd anyway. But women + men who don’t like sexism is a pretty broad coalition that can win a race in this state any day of the week.

    I know you’re not a big fan of Martha, but this was smart politics and – more importantly – the right thing to do. Public shame is one the best curative agents we have against sexism (and racism and homophobia, etc., as well).

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