More Than a Woman

The unwritten and silly rule that only allows one woman to seek office at a time.

Juliette Kayyem, assistant secretary, the Department of Homeland Security, at the States and Territories Hurricane Response Workshop co-sponsored by the National Guard Bureau and Northern Command in Tampa, Fla., on Jan. 22, 2010.
Juliette Kayyem (above) is still running for Massachusetts governor, even though Martha Coakley has entered the race. That’s a good thing.

Courtesy U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill

When Juliette Kayyem made it clear she was running for Massachusetts governor this summer, local and national women’s groups raced to support her. Kayyem had never run for any office before, but she was an expert in national security and terrorism who had worked in the Obama administration. Her inexperience could be an asset, her supporters figured, as she could appeal to a younger generation of voters. All was going well until mid-September when Martha Coakley, the state’s attorney general who’d lost to Scott Brown in the 2010 Senate race, announced that she would also be entering the race for governor. 

“I just don’t think there’s room for another smart female in this race,” Shannon O’Brien, a former state treasurer who lost the governor’s race to Mitt Romney in 2002, said on Boston Public Radio about Kayyem. Local political blogs also assumed that Kayyem would “defer” to Coakley. And Emily’s List, a fundraising group that supports pro-choice women candidates, shifted its support to Coakley within a few days of her entering the race, then gently encouraged Kayyem to get out of the running and lend her support to Coakley as well. (Kayyem would not confirm any communication. But a source from Emily’s List confirmed that there had been a call and described it as a “suggestion, not anything like a demand.”)

Often in politics there is an automatic, unspoken, assumption that only one woman can run at a time.  For example, stories about Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren that speculate about whether she will or won’t run for president, generally take it as a given that Warren can’t possibly enter the Democratic primary if Hillary Clinton decides to run. But why is this the automatic assumption? Warren is an utterly different kind of politician with a distinct biography and a passionate following. She and Clinton have even had substantive disagreements in the past about bank regulation, one of Warren’s central issues. Nobody ever told Howard Dean to get out of the race because John Kerry was running. What law dictates that there can be only one woman per major race at a time?

This one-woman only instinct is left over from an age of tokenism, when the political imagination could only accommodate a single red suit in a sea of gray. But as more women get into politics, a lot of local primaries include more than one woman. The one woman strategy also assumes that all women candidates are fighting for the votes of women, so the prospect of having two of them adds up to a zero sum game for both. But as Christine Quinn’s failed run for New York mayor showed, this assumption is outdated. Women don’t necessarily vote for other women, especially not in heavily Democratic regions. They spread their votes fairly evenly among the candidates they like.

“I think the advocates for more gender balance are succeeding faster than they recognize, as there are just so many talented women now in the pipeline,” says John Walsh, who is leading Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s political operation. “I think it’s just time to adjust and say—while it’s not mission accomplished yet, not at all—the dynamic is such that gender competition should not be such a problem, and should be allowed to run its course.”

A recent study empirically disproves the idea that a political culture can only tolerate one woman candidate at a time. The study looks at the effects of one woman’s election on the elections of subsequent women (not women running against each other but women in different races). What it found was a “multiplier effect”—more women winning in state legislative offices, for example, breeds more women everywhere else, particularly in larger and more heavily Democratic states. While the study doesn’t specifically address two women running in the same race, it confirms something that should be obvious: Having more women visibly involved in politics gets us used to having more women in politics. (The second generation of the New Hampshire matriarchy is a perfect example of the multiplier effect in action).

In one important way Emily’s List decision to support one woman over another in certain races has had a beneficial effect. Sometimes the women they don’t support stay in the races anyway, and go on to distinguish themselves as something other than a typical “woman’s” candidate. Emily’s List tends to run fairly traditional but unthreatening feminist campaigns. Their campaign ads like this one, for Alison Grimes, who is running against Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, tend to feature kids or grandmothers, domestic scenes and nods to feminist accomplishments. Even Wendy Davis, their star candidate at the moment, seems to have undergone a makeover, her hair blown out, and her smiling self surrounded by kids.

But not having the support of Emily’s List frees up a woman to run her own way. Kayyem, for instance, chose to disregard the suggestion that she “defer” to Coakley, and stay in the race. As a result she’s running a much less typically Emily’s List campaign. On her campaign page, for instance, she features almost no pictures with her family, although she is a married mother of three school age children. She doesn’t talk all that much about feminist issues such as abortion, figuring that in that state, most candidates who win are pro-choice. She talks a lot about keeping the state safe from terrorist attacks and about the need for a generational shift in politics, all with a decidedly post-feminist attitude. “I am not running because I’m a woman,” she told me, “and I will surely lose if I think that’s why people should support me.” 

Jess McIntosh, a spokeswoman for Emily’s List, said the group in no way follows a one woman strategy but instead makes strategic decisions in every race. In the Massachusetts governor’s race, for example, Coakley is well known and the obvious front-runner (although Kayyem raised more money in September, the last month for which figures were reported.) In a special election in Illinois involving three women, the group watched the race to make sure no serious male contender would emerge but otherwise stayed out of it. And in Hawaii, the group has alternately supported Colleen Hanabusa or Mazie Hirono over the years, depending on each woman’s prospects in that particular race. “It depends on each race,” says McIntosh. “Our goal is to get more women in office, so we support the woman who is the strongest and we get involved where our help can make a difference.” In future races, for example, the group might support Kayyem, she says.

Maybe the disconnect between what Emily’s List says they are doing and what they seem to be doing comes from outdated expectations. In the early days Emily’s List operated like a political sisterhood. A strong woman candidate was a rare breed, and the group might have been able to support most of them. But now, universal admission to the sisterhood is no longer possible. In another Massachusetts House race to fill Ed Markey’s old seat, for example, the group chose Katherine Clark over Karen Spilka, who was polling second in the primaries, leaving many in the Spilka camp annoyed that the group was effectively spending its money to keep one pro-choice woman out of the race at the expense of another. But like all interest groups, Emily’s List had to make a choice, right? So let them make their pragmatic decisions but leave the other female candidates alone. Let the candidate who isn’t chosen think of this as business as usual, and not be wounded or disappointed. Let the expectation of a political sisterhood die. And may the best woman win.