Pennsylvania's primary was notable for the number of Democratic female candidates for governor and Congress, including Allyson Schwartz, Katie McGinty, Val Arkoosh, Marjorie Margolies, and Shaughnessy Naughton.
Every one of them lost. To argue that all five candidates are the same is to be reductive and wrong.
Pennsylvania has never elected a woman governor, or senator, and, come January, it will be represented by 18 men in the U.S. House. (New Jersey appears primed to elect one woman to Congress.) I don't vote by gender - how could you in this state? - but that's appalling and an embarrassment. If the opposite held true, men would be in revolt.
After I wrote about the primary and how poorly women candidates fared, the reaction was immediate, nasty, and personal, especially toward Schwartz.
The congresswoman, I noted, ran a poor campaign and Tom Wolf operated an excellent one, feathered by $10 million of his own funds. But the criticism toward Schwartz and other women candidates was more withering than that.
Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics, ticked off the list of invectives commonly hurled at women candidates: shrill, annoying, angry, aggressive, aloof, unlikable. "We sometimes hold women to a higher standard, this quest for perfection in women," Walsh said. "Men get more of a pass."
Yes, all that and then some. Irrational comes to mind. Critics carped that Schwartz was unelectable as governor because she is liberal, Jewish, and a career politician from the Philadelphia region, all of which never stopped Ed Rendell.
In December, Philadelphia magazine published a blistering profile, the premise "Who doesn't like Allyson Y. Schwartz? Um, a lot of people." As if the rest of the state's congressional delegation is so warm and appealing. Pennsylvanians had no issue electing Arlen Specter, the charm magnet known as Snarlin' Arlen, to five terms in the Senate.
The charm question was leveled at Hillary Clinton during the 2008 presidential campaign. She was asked directly about her likability during a New Hampshire debate. Who ever asked that of Dick Cheney or John Kerry?
The consistent message is that women in power must be appealing, in politics and as top executives. Pretty and poised matters, too. (The turmoil surrounding the recent firing of New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson included much of the same brutal criticism.) Yes, women can be bad bosses, politicians, and candidates, but the criticism and the controversy remain sharper and louder, often because women persist in being the exception.
And it doesn't speak to the diversity of options. Congressional candidates Arkoosh and Naughton are poised and new to politics, with strong backgrounds in medicine and science. Voters would be hard-pressed to find a gubernatorial candidate more magnetic and affable than former state environmental secretary McGinty, who opted to take the high road during the campaign. I believed McGinty showed the greatest promise in being able to work with Harrisburg's recalcitrant Republicans. She came in dead last, with less than 8 percent of the vote.
Contrary to the Northeast's image of being progressive and egalitarian, "the good old blue states are worse for women. They have more of an all-male traditional power structure in place," said Rebecca Traister, author of a book on the 2008 election, Big Girls Don't Cry. Severely liberal Massachusetts never had a woman senator until Elizabeth Warren in 2012. "Western and pioneer states are the ones where women get elected," Traister said.
Politics demands grit. "You can't be a bubbly, smiling girl and get to the top," Traister said. "Politics remains a deeply, deeply male game. Women can create their own strategies, form their own personas, but all of it is colored by gender, in both positive and negative ways." It's a game that has been played one way forever. Many voters, at least in Pennsylvania, do not appear ready to abandon those rules.