What the Second Brown-Warren Debate Says About Gender in Politics

As Elizabeth Warren treads the fine line demanded of female candidates, Scott Brown delivers an ungentlemanly performance.

Associated Press

What is the lasting impression Massachusetts voters may have following the latest Scott Brown-Elizabeth Warren Senate debate? Maybe that Scott Brown isn't quite as nice as his image would suggest.

Brown appeared unnecessarily combative Monday night -- most notably cutting Warren off at one point with "I am not a student in your classroom," which drew boos from the crowd.

The contrast between Brown and Warren's demeanors was pretty stark. She has a smart, soft-spoken, Midwestern style. So the somewhat mean, macho Brown offensive attack felt like overkill and a replay of the approach he took two years ago in his race against Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley. Brown used a similar line on Coakley -- telling her, "I'm not in your courtroom. I'm not a defendant" -- during a debate.

Brown depicted himself in that campaign as a guy's guy wearing a canvas barncoat and driving his pickup truck around the state, and he won the male vote by 13 points.

Last fall, when a reporter mentioned that Brown posed nude for a magazine photo to help pay for Boston College Law School and asked Warren how she paid for college, she quipped, "I didn't take my clothes off." To which Brown retorted, "thank God" -- pronounced gawd in Massachusetts speak -- essentially calling Warren unattractive.

In this race there's a bit of gender role reversal when it comes to appearance and intelligence. Warren, the Harvard professor, doesn't seem overly concerned with the hair and make-up aspect of politics. while Brown has been celebrated for his good looks and is reportedly sensitive about being taken seriously by his Senate colleagues or any suggestion that he's a lightweight.

Voters who already like Scott Brown and plan to vote for him no doubt appreciated his pugnacity in the debate.

But a recent Boston Globe poll shows Warren with a slight lead in the race and 18 percent of voters undecided, almost all of whom plan to vote for Barack Obama. According to the poll, Obama has a 27 point lead in Massachusetts. Brown will have to convince these voters to split their ticket -- hence his emphasis on trying to portray himself as an independent voice in the Senate who can work with Democrats.

Probably Warren's most persuasive argument is that Brown could be a decisive vote in giving the Republicans a Senate majority. But at the same time he was touting his bipartisan record he was punching away at Warren as if he was in a boxing ring.

Warren more than kept her cool but did show amusement when Brown, asked to name his favorite Supreme Court justice, first named conservative icon Antonin Scalia. After negative reaction from the crowd, Brown recited a laundry list of what sounded like every justice he could think of, across the ideological spectrum.

Women in political debates are often in a no-win situation. They can't look passive, but if they fight back they are accused of being "unladylike," as GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin referred to Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill. Akin, who clearly has problems with women on many levels, also rather oddly referred to McCaskill as a "wildcat."

But it's not just a far-right conservative who doesn't seem to know how women get pregnant that is guilty of such sexism.

In 2002 when Mitt Romney was running for governor of Massachusetts he referred to his Democratic opponent Shannon O'Brien as "unbecoming" because she kept challenging the inconsistencies of his positions in a debate.

And Barack Obama's somewhat sarcastic retort to Hillary Clinton during a 2008 debate that she is "likeable enough" wasn't quite as bad but still illustrates the problem for women candidates.

Warren is the woman trying to break the streak of female candidates not being able to get elected to the governor's office or to the U.S. Senate from overwhelmingly Democratic, liberal Massachusetts. In its entire history, the state has only elected four women to Congress.

Far more conservative states like North and South Carolina, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Kansas, Texas, and Arizona have elected women from both parties as governor. New Hampshire and Maine both currently have two women senators -- only one of whom is a Democrat.

Warren was even asked why Massachusetts hasn't elected a woman to be governor or U.S. senator by debate moderator David Gregory, host of NBC's Meet the Press. Warren's comeback was perfect: "I don't know. I'm trying to do something about that."

I think she probably does know why. After all, the financial industry which Warren tried to regulate is no less sexist an arena than the world of politics -- especially in a state like Massachusetts where it's a blood sport.

A feisty crowd of more than 5,000 people, who chowed down on beer and hot dogs just like at a sporting event, were on hand for the debate and booed and cheered throughout.

Massachusetts has long considered politics its favorite pastime after the Red Sox, who also appeared as a debate topic. Gregory quizzed both candidates about whether manager Bobby Valentine should be fired and pushed with follow-up questions as if it was a matter of national security.

There is little doubt that a double standard exists when it comes to what male and female candidates and office holders can get away with. But political debate over this extends even to whether there is a double standard, despite numerous studies that have shown that voters do set a higher bar for women candidates and there is a greater emphasis on their appearance and "likeability."

Is it possible to even imagine a female version of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie being a credible candidate?

Whatever the analysis of tomorrow night's presidential debate you can bet no one will use the phrase "ungentlemanly" to describe either candidate.