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Don’t Vote for the Wrong Reasons

Gretchen K. Aleks

A disturbing article in Sunday’s Boston Globe indicated that Shannon O’Brien, the Democratic front-runner in today’s gubernatorial primary, was poised to win the race simply because of her gender. O’Brien, who has a two-to-one advantage with women voters across the state, would be the first elected female governor in Massachusetts, should she win the primary and, in turn, the November general election against Republican Mitt Romney. Analysts predict that her standing with women voters is likely to be the factor that pushes her ahead of major challenger Robert Reich, a former secretary of labor under the Clinton administration.

The most disturbing part about the Globe article was not the fact that women voters favor a female candidate; it was the fact that many women see voting for O’Brien as a way to make history. In no way is electing a woman governor a good replacement for making history by electing a governor who will take a feminist stand on women’s issues. Equally disturbing is the fact that female voters are willing to elect a woman based on her gender, despite the fact that competitors have a far stronger record on women’s issues than does O’Brien.

Every argument for voting for a candidate simply because she is a woman falls when examining O’Brien’s history. A conventional argument offered by many women is that the election of a female candidate proves that women are capable, self-empowered citizens who will serve as good role models for young girls.

This argument simply is not true for this particular female candidate. O’Brien is, in fact, a remnant of the good old boy’s club of Massachusetts politics. Her father Edward O’Brien -- a fixture of state politics who has been a governor’s councilor for 27 years -- was a key factor in her first election to office, and she has remained in league with the male cronies from Beacon Hill throughout her career. At a debate this past week, her embarrassing ties to Speaker of the House Thomas Finneran -- an anti-choice, wheeling-dealing Democrat -- were highlighted by Steve Birmingham, one of her opponents. O’Brien was Finneran’s candidate of choice, and she is the only Democratic candidate for governor who has not publicly stood up to his policies, which, aside from an irrational opposition to giving women control of their own medical decisions, have included opposition to family leave for working women.

O’Brien is certainly not an example of a woman raising herself up by her bootstraps to challenge the patriarchy of an otherwise liberal state. She continues to use her good old boys’ connections to this day. Edward O’Brien, in the current election cycle, warned reporters to “be nice to his little girl.” Is this a candidate that should serve as a model of a self-empowered woman?

The other major argument that is used for supporting a female candidate on basis of her gender is that she is more sensitive to women’s issues than are male candidates. In fact, O’Brien’s record is particularly weak on women’s issues. She has only recently emerged with a pro-choice platform, and her actions as a legislator and as treasurer do not give her any special credentials on women’s issues. On the other hand, the other Democrats in the race have proactive records of pushing for family leave, affordable child-care, and wage parity. Robert Reich, as secretary of labor, pushed for greater job-training programs for women, oversaw the creation of a center to inform women of pension disparities due to wage gap and family leave issues, and appointed women to high positions within the Department of Labor (in contrast to O’Brien, whose advisers are all men). Warren Tolman, the fourth Democratic contender, has garnered a perfect legislative grade from the National Organization for Women, far better than O’Brien’s.

Despite these drawbacks to Shannon O’Brien’s candidacy, many Massachusetts voters are resolute in their determination to elect a woman. Why not, then, vote for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for governor? Her feminist credentials are far stronger than O’Brien’s, and Dr. Stein also represents an opportunity for reform within the state government, while O’Brien represents the old-fashioned politics that have dominated Massachusetts in the past.

In general, it is bad policy to vote for a candidate solely on the basis of their gender. In this case, it is particularly egregious for the women (and some men) of Massachusetts to vote for Shannon O’Brien solely because she shares their gender. Yes, Massachusetts needs more female candidates for high office. Electing a flawed candidate when better alternatives exist, however, is not an appropriate response to the lack of female office-holders.