Did Massachusetts’ Old Boys’ Network Do In Martha Coakley?

The rest of New England is a haven for female pols.

Martha Coakley’s unexpected struggle in the Massachusetts Senate race has been chalked up to disenchantment with President Obama and her initial laissez-faire approach to campaigning. But something else could be at work, too: Masschusetts’ proclivity for male candidates. The state may have a progressive reputation, but only one member of its congressional delegation is female, and for most of the ‘80s and all of the 1990s, Massachusetts didn’t send any women to Washington. In that context, it’s not so surprising that the truck-driving Scott Brown, who has campaigned with Red Sox hero Curt Schilling at his side, may be on the verge of scoring an upset.

In a way, it’s surprising that Coakley became the nominee in the first place. An old boys’ network dominates the state Democratic Party, which has kept many women out of top political jobs. The machine-style approach isn’t shared by the state’s New England neighbors. In fact, those places are teeming with women in public life. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter had virtually no political experience when she ran for a New Hampshire seat in the House of Representatives. She’d been a social worker and a volunteer at her church. The campaign was so strapped for cash that her staff mostly labored for free. Nonetheless, she scrounged enough votes to boot a seated Republican from office. Stunned reporters took to calling Shea-Porter’s win “a Cinderella story.” “They said no one had heard of me until I won,” she says.

If Shea-Porter is Cinderella, then New England is her fairy-tale castle. Over the years, the peculiarities of that region’s politics have made it a haven for women running for office. New Hampshire, for example, has the only state Senate in the country that is majority female. Maine is the only state with a majority-female delegation to the U.S. Congress and could be on the verge elevating a woman to the governorship this year. If that happens, New England will have elected more women as their states’ chief executives than anywhere else. That trend has a long history: Madeleine Kunin became Vermont’s first female governor in 1984.

Why do women do so well in New England? During presidential primary season, people complain about the small-bore retail politics of New Hampshire—the living room chats and sewing groups. But this kind of person-to-person contact plays to women’s strengths. The New England states have small populations but big state legislatures. That’s particularly true in New Hampshire, where each statehouse member represents roughly 3,000 residents. Rep-to-voter ratios like that mean elections are largely won by meeting and chatting up constituents.

Because women who have historically gotten involved in politics were already regulars at PTA and town-hall meetings, they have a leg up when the system prizes personal interaction. Shea Porter used her contacts as a community activist and ran her campaign on the principle that each volunteer would personally find 10 supporters. “It’s an environment where being active in your community can naturally segue into an elected role,” says Elizabeth Ossoff, professor of politics at St. Anslem University in Manchester, N.H. “There’s an obvious connection to community work and public office.”

As it turns out, the paycheck for serving in New England public office isn’t much different from community work, and that helps increase female representation, too. “We’re good at filling jobs that don’t pay so well,” wryly notes Sylvia Larsen, president of the New Hampshire Senate. Many men figure running for office isn’t financially viable when the compensation is paltry. The states where political jobs actually pay something tend to have a lot more men than women filling the slots. It’s not a coincidence that Massachusetts state legislators are some of the best-paid in the country. Plus, when there are lucrative government posts and patronage jobs to be doled out, party bosses tend to call the shots, and those systems often elevate young men, rather than young women, through the political ranks. That’s essentially what happens in Massachusetts.

When women do get sworn into the prestigious posts, it tends to have a multiplier effect. “The more women are visible,” says former Gov. Kunin, “the more other women say, ‘Hey, I can do that.’ ” Sen. Susan Collins of Maine has remarked how transformative it was for her to meet the late Sen. Margaret Chase Smith on a high school visit to Washington. Donna Sytek, the former New Hampshire speaker of the House, recalls how the first female state Senate president, Vesta Roy, not only encouraged her to run but also took care of her daughter while Sytek made her first campaign calls.

Over time, women have created their own networks and moved up the ranks. Jeanne Shaheen went from New Hampshire governor to senator and may have a female colleague next year if Attorney General Kelly Ayotte wins her bid to go to Washington. Libby Mitchell, the front-runner to be the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Maine, served as state House speaker before becoming state Senate president; she’s the only woman in the country who has held both posts.

Of course, women can thrive outside of retail politics. California, which practices pretty much the opposite of person-to-person electioneering, has two female senators. And younger female politicians, like New York Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand, have shown they can thrive in states with political parties in which the old boys’ network is plenty powerful. Still, those living-room chats are uniquely suited to promoting the woman-volunteer-turned-candidate. And for that reason, New England it will probably maintain its distinction as a place where female politicos routinely beat out their male competition.

See a Magnum Photos gallery on other female politicians.