Observers Dissect Role of Gender in O'Brien's Loss

Shannon O'Brien may have lost because she was female, because not enough women voted for her, or because Mitt Romney attracted more men. O'Brien may have made gender-neutral missteps. The pundits are puzzling. Also, Ladyfest opens in Los Angeles today.

Shannon O'Brien

BOSTON (WOMENSENEWS)-Young, smart and blessed with a fine political pedigree, Shannon O'Brien stood poised to become the first elected female governor in the history of Massachusetts.

Instead, like female candidates all across the country, O'Brien spent the day after the election pondering a painful problem: What happened to the gender boost?

Days after the 43-year-old Massachusetts treasurer secured the Democratic nomination for governor, analysts predicted women would rally behind O'Brien and carry her to victory over venture capitalist Mitt Romney, the Republican gubernatorial candidate who went on to triumph in Tuesday's election.

Consistently, O'Brien harped on “female-friendly” topics such as education and elder care. Barely a day passed without O'Brien promising to improve conditions for the families of Massachusetts, another issue zone known to perk women's political ears. O'Brien also made sure that employment and health care were cast as issues of concern to families-and more specifically, to women.

But so did Romney, who also launched an early end-run around the gender conundrum by picking a female running mate, political neophyte Kerry Murphy Healey.

In the end, O'Brien owned the women's vote in the state that first sent her to the state legislature at age 28. But Romney owned even more of the men's vote. O'Brien beat Romney by 10 points among women. But he bested her by 14 points among men.

‘The Girls Went Down In Flames'

In many ways, O'Brien's defeat was symbolic of the drubbing taken Tuesday by U.S. Senate candidates Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, Jean Carnahan in Missouri and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in Maryland. Women congressional candidates also faltered Tuesday in many regions.

“The girls went down in flames,” said Elizabeth Sherman, who studies women in politics at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Ironically, Sherman suggested, gender may have been incidental.

“I think what really hurt the women this time was being Democrats,” she said. “Most women in politics are Democrats. Ergo, in an election fueled by support for George W. Bush, they lost.”

Republican Elizabeth Dole easily secured the U.S. Senate seat she sought from North Carolina, Sherman pointed out.

Dole's victory meant the female head-count in the Senate will remain at 13. The number of women in the House of Representatives dropped by one, to 59. What will happen to the seat of the late Patsy Mink of Hawaii, a Democrat who was reelected posthumously, is not yet known.

Party Wins Out Over Gender in Partisan Election Season

As she autopsied the dismal results, National Women's Political Caucus President Roselyn O'Connell said it was still too early to generalize about what happened to the women's vote in this election. But O'Connell also noted that “What happened on Tuesday was not particularly good for Democrats, and what these women have in common is that they are all Democrats. That is the piece that really makes it all hang together.”

In such a fiercely partisan election, party seemed to win out over gender. “There was no way to step outside of that box,” O'Connell said. She would not go so far as to say that Tuesday's results were a setback for women's political aspirations.

“But this election didn't propel us forward very much,” she said. “That is why it is such a disappointment.”

Even though women picked up gubernatorial slots in Hawaii, Kansas and Michigan-with results still pending in Arizona, “we did not do nearly what we had the opportunity to do,” O'Connell said. “It makes me think: Just how ready is this electorate for more gender parity?”

In Massachusetts, said political analyst Lou diNatale of the University of Massachusetts-Boston, gender emerged as a largely symbolic issue. When O'Brien ran as the sole female Democratic candidate in the state's primary, women rushed to support her. But when O'Brien herself pushed to include third-party candidates in a series of televised debates, that edge faded somewhat. There was Romney, faced off against Libertarian Carla Howell, Green party candidate Jill Stein and Independent candidate Barbara Johnson-as well as O'Brien.

On the one hand, he was definitely the odd man out. From another perspective, diNatale said, “It was four women and a guy. He seemed pleasant enough, even though he was kind of awkward up there. And, he was the only male against four women. Many men reacted to this. That was significant. In a sense it gave Romney the gender edge.”

Final TV Debate May Have Hurt O'Brien

But O'Brien herself stumbled over gender politics, diNatale said. In the final televised debate, moderated by NBC's Tim Russert, O'Brien advocated lowering the age at which young women can seek an abortion without parental consent in Massachusetts from 18 to 16. Russert, surprised by her stance, gave O'Brien the opportunity to change her position. But O'Brien stood firm.

“You don't want to lose a debate to the moderator, and that's what she did,” diNatale said. “Abortion turned out to be a significant issue. Only it was significant for Romney.”

In the same debate, Romney several times pounced on O'Brien for making “unbecoming” statements. O'Brien ran with that, suggesting that Romney had pigeonholed her with an antiquated and sexist adjective. Romney's aides countered by reminding voters that “conduct unbecoming to an officer” was usually not seen as a sexist expression.

Romney swamped O'Brien with brutal television ads, including some aimed at her lobbyist husband, Robert Emmet Hayes. Yet voters faulted O'Brien for being too negative in her own ads, and too brash and aggressive in the debates.

“When we asked people who was more negative, it was O'Brien by a wide margin,” diNatale said. “But in reality, Romney probably outdid her on negativity five to one.”

In any event, O'Brien's attacks on Romney failed to stick. Voters failed to buy the idea that the corporate chieftain who “rescued” the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City could be packaged either as Simon Legree-a bully in business who routinely eliminated jobs for working stiffs-or, as O'Brien tried to paint him, Tricky Mitt.

Despite the outcome of Tuesday's election, O'Brien, with political roots in Massachusetts that go back four generations, is not likely to disappear.

“She's young, she's very smart and she's very ambitious,” Sherman said. “She's also a quick study. She stubs her toe, she bandages it; she doesn't kick that tire again. She's bright and she's got the bug. It's in her genes. She'll come back. She'll definitely come back.”

Elizabeth Mehren is the New England Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times.

For more information:

Also see Women's Enews, November 6, 2002:
“Dole, Harris Win; Shaheen, O'Brien Concede Defeat”:

Center for American Women and Politics:

Women's Campaign Fund:

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Ladyfest Opens Today in Los Angeles

(WOMENSENEWS)-Old enough to be affected by gender discrimination, but too youthful to remember Joan Baez performing at the Newport Folk Festival, young feminists are organizing their own events, known as Ladyfests, to showcase, promote, and support creative women in the arts.

Ladyfest is an umbrella term for the loose network of do-it-yourself festivals focusing on women in the arts. All of the Ladyfests are founded on the principles of self-organizing, grassroots activism and the recognition of arts created independently of commercial or corporate interests. From today until Nov. 11, organizers estimate that as many as 3,000 people will attend Ladyfest in Los Angeles.

The live music showcases feature some of the best female indie rock, punk, hip-hop and country bands of today, including Sleater-Kinney, The Gossip, Bratmobile, and Neko Case. Films, spoken word, and exhibits of female artists' work also run continuously. Self-educational workshops and classes, perhaps the key element of any Ladyfest, are led by local activists on topics of concern to young feminists: tenants' rights, small-business ownership, music instruction, bike and car repair, sexual freedom, racism, homophobia and other social issues.

All the events are based on the original Ladyfest, an arts and education festival spanning six days in Olympia, Wash., in 2000. Ladyfest Olympia was organized by artists and activists in the Pacific Northwest, and featured music, film, visual art, written performance and educational workshops with a punk edge.

The do-it-yourself ethic has allowed Ladyfest to spread to all parts of the United States, as well as Canada, Europe, and Australia; there are at least 14 festivals planned for 2002 and 2003.

Ladyfests, though they are nonprofit organizations, typically choose beneficiaries to profit from the festivals.

“We need to build a foundation for the next generation of feminists to come along,” said Erin Siodmak, who organized Ladyfest East, held in New York City in 2001 and September of this year. For that reason, Ladyfest East planned all-ages events for young people and donated its profits to help support the Lower East Side Girls Club, a community organization in New York that teaches young girls artistic, entrepreneurial and life skills. Ladyfest East also helped out the New York City-based feminist magazine BUST, which recently underwent a cash crisis.

“Giving money to these groups is only part of our mission,” Siodmak added. “We want to foster a commitment to feminism and the arts in the young women who will eventually overtake our society.”

-Kat Long