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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