Do Gender Stereotypes Play a Role in the Massachusetts Senate Race?

The personal is still (depressingly) political.

IElizabeth Warren has been hurt by gender stereotypes, while her opponent, Senator Scott Brown, has cultivated a masculine image to his political benefit. (Reuters)

Former Boston mayor Ray Flynn's recent endorsement of Scott Brown was predictable, but it was coupled with a surprising, remarkably blithe assertion of ignorance about Brown's politics or policy predilections. "I didn't go through his congressional record or roll call," Flynn admitted. "I don't have time for that." How does Brown compare to Elizabeth Warren? "I don't know the first thing about her." Flynn's endorsement was not about "politics or ideology," he explained; rather, it was a "nonpolitical message about the man," based on "what I knew about his personal life growing up."

Apparently, the political is purely personal for Flynn. In fact, Brown is appealing to voters who share this tendency to base hard political decisions on soft "nonpolitical" factors. He even presents himself as essentially nonpolitical, practically posing as an Independent; the word "Republican" is not often uttered by the Brown campaign. He banks on what has been Warren's relative unlikeability among voters who view her as preachy -- rarely failing to address her as "Professor," with barely concealed disdain. He presses vituperative attacks on Warren's character, which he premiered at their first debate, when he called her a liar for claiming Native American ancestry.

Warren (whom I support) is trying to make the race about policy -- about their differing approaches to tax reform, Brown's voting record, and his political allegiances; she stresses that his re-election could give conservative Republicans control of the U.S. Senate. She has her own personal hardship narrative, like virtually every candidate these days, but for Warren's campaign, the political is mostly political.

It's an interesting study in gender stereotypes. This clash between a woman focusing on policy and a man resorting to personal, emotional appeals embodies a subtle role reversal. Warren cites Brown's record against equality and choice: his vote against equal pay, his vote to allow non-religious as well as religious employers to deny employees contraceptive coverage. (Brown has won the support of Massachusetts Citizens for Life.) He responds with an irrelevant personal credential -- his childhood defense of his abused mother. "I have been fighting for women since I was six years old," he says, as if his love for the women in his family were at issue, not his advocacy for the women in the Commonwealth.

Maybe feminism achieves an inadvertent victory when a male candidate more than a female relies on a shallow view of the personal as political. Maybe not. With his athletic, truck-driving, regular guy image, Brown benefits from gender stereotypes even as he adopts the emotional approach to issues (and voters) stereotypically associated with women. Meanwhile, the logical, intellectual Warren represents a stereotypically male model of rationalism, maybe to her detriment, maybe not (one can hope).

Double standards have weakened over the past few decades, but they still retain power. Unlike Scott Brown, Elizabeth Warren has, so far, been hurt more than helped by gender stereotypes (which classify her as schoolmarmish), and she has less room to challenge them. Imagine the reaction if Warren had called out Brown for dishonesty in her first remarks at their first debate; imagine if she had declared (and continued declaring) that he failed the "character test" by checking the "pro-choice" box for the sake of advancing his career. She'd be derided as "shrill" and "strident," and, in private, a "bitch."

Reputed good guy Scott Brown has risked eroding his own likeability with his sneering attacks, and male candidates sometimes complain that they're constrained by tradition from aggressively confronting female opponents. But that tradition is fading in our hyper-partisan age (except perhaps in primaries), and he risks less than she would if she were to adopt his tactics. The political can be stubbornly and stupidly personal, indeed.