Campaigning on Manhood: Sarah Palin, Karen Handel, Meet Scott Brown

What Women Really Think
Aug. 3 2010 2:00 PM

Campaigning on Manhood: Sarah Palin, Karen Handel, Meet Scott Brown

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Jessica , Amanda, thank you for pointing out Sarah Palin’s and Karen Handel’s taunts about the inadequate manhood of their opponents. How clever of these women to make clear that they are the better men for the job! Maybe they learned something from last year’s Massachusetts special Senatorial election: ignoring gender can sink a campaign.

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In our state’s 2009 election to replace Sen. Ted Kennedy, the gender attacks were simultaneously more traditional, and-maybe because of that-less visible to commentators. Many noted that Scott Brown’s famous Cosmo centerfold didn’t hurt him the way something comparable would have hurt a woman; it might even have hiked his status a bit. But I didn’t see anyone commenting on the fact that Brown ran almost entirely on his manhood. His signature TV ad started with him leaning out of his pickup truck, saying, "I have a truck." (Honest, I’m not making this up.) His pickup truck was seen as a symbol of his regular-guy-ness, with emphasis on "regular." But it was only regular because he was a guy. Can you imagine a woman saying that? She’d be laughed out of town-or rather, have her womanhood questioned, to say the least. And yet I never heard any commenters noting that one of Brown’s central attractions was his big…truck. Another of Brown's TV ads had him standing in a kitchen, as if to say: See, gals? He'd be a great husband! He even knows where the kitchen is! Now imagine how a woman's ad would be seen if she were taped standing in a kitchen. She'd be inviting viewers to think-or say-that she ought to stay there.

Martha Coakley, by contrast, ran as a 1980s neutered woman: She never pointed out that she was female, she kept her appearance as neutral as possible, and she rarely offered emotion of any kind-emotion being, presumably, soft and girly. Massachusetts has never elected a female governor or senator. Coakley has long been ambitious, and clearly worked against that female handicap by coming up through the political ranks first as a district attorney and then as the state’s top prosecutor-nice, tough jobs that should have proved that she had, as Sarah P. would say, cojones . But running on neuter didn’t work.

I wouldn’t suggest that the gendered campaign was why Coakley lost; her campaign had quite enough flaws, thank you, including an all-but-unforgivable gaffe about the Red Sox, the local religion. (See: Fever Pitch .) But clearly politicians can't afford to ignore gender. Smart campaigners elsewhere might well have taken a lesson: attack your opponent’s manhood before it can attack you.

Photograph of Scott Brown by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

E.J. Graff is a contributing editor at American Prospect and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.

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