A MESSAGE WE WERE EXPECTING?
Last month, on January 19, 2010, Massachusetts experienced the seemingly impossible: the citizens of the Bay State elected a Republican--yes a Republican--to the U.S. Senate. Massachusetts, a state with arguably one of the richest Democratic voting traditions, gave the seat held by the late Senator Ted Kennedy since 1962 to the conservative Scott Brown. Senator Brown conducted a brilliant campaign that capitalized on both voters' frustration with the current affairs of the Obama administration and the appealing image of a handsome, truck-driving father to beat favored Democratic candidate Martha Coakley. The day after the election, newspapers announced that Scott Brown generated a revolution and that the voters' choices sent a clear message of discontent to Washington.
The voters also sent another message, but this one was not quite as revolutionary. Once again, American citizens voted against electing a woman to a prominent political position. Just as Massachusetts has a strong tradition of electing Democratic candidates, it also has a legacy of electing men. Massachusetts has never had a female U.S. Senator--only four women have been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and only five women have held a statewide office. Nationally, Massachusetts is not an anomaly. Currently, only 17 percent of U.S. Senators are female. Women, a group that constitutes 51 percent of the total population, are grossly underrepresented in the government.
Martha Coakley clearly made fundamental mistakes in her campaign strategy, such as her overconfidence and her neglect of basic retail politics. She also suffered from the growing voter anger over the current Democratic Party agenda. Both of these factors can adequately explain her loss, yet her failure undeniably adds another brick to the wall that obstructs female access to politics. Even if Martha Coakley--or Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin--was an incompetent candidate, the undeniable truth is that women are not winning elections. Even worse, they're just not running.
What is it about politics that disadvantages women and discourages them from running for prominent positions? Is it a sense of inferiority among hordes of powerful men? Studies have shown that women often worry about their capabilities and compensate for their unconscious "ineptitudes" by waiting to compete with men for high power positions until they earn higher credentials. Is it the doubt that women can raise as much money as men? There is no compelling evidence to suggest that this is or has ever been the case. Is it the pressure from the media that tends to judge women for their sexuality? If a woman posed for a nude photo shoot, as Scott Brown did in 1982 for the "Sexiest Man Alive" contest in Cosmopolitan magazine, she would certainly be denied any prospect of a political career. Is it that women just do not have the strength of character and the mental toughness to rule the nation? I have met and admired too many empowered women to ever believe this claim.
Men and women are not equal, nor will they ever be. However, they generally have different strengths and weaknesses that can complement each other when combined. A world inhabited by both men and women should be led by both men and women. Whether it is that women need to fight harder in political elections or that more competent women need to run for office or that the American public needs to be more open to women leaders, the message is clear: the future of American politics and of our nation lies on the back of two, not one, groups of people.