The kerfuffle surrounding Scott Lennon’s ad in the TAB, Ruthanne Fuller’s response, and Scott’s follow up have raised an important question: to what extent do our mayoral candidates have the sensitivity to identify and sympathy to address bias against women*?

The language in Scott’s ad about his years of full-time employment, critics of the ad (including this one) argue, reflects an insensitivity towards the fact that women have fewer opportunities to reach middle age with continuous employment and that “alternative” career paths more typically followed by women can provide valuable experience for elected office. On the other hand, Scott’s defenders have noted that Ruthanne’s history of donating to Republican Party candidates calls into question her sympathy to issues of gender bias, given the Republican Party’s abysmal track record on women’s issues.

To get a better picture of where they stand, I spoke with both of them. Spoiler alert: we should be optimistic.

For starters, Scott said, clearly and unequivocally, that he regrets the words he used, that he owns them, and that he has heard the message loud and clear, “Words matter.” In a campaign where 9 out of 10 voters want to know how to distinguish the two candidates, he mishandled his attempt to distinguish his work experience from Ruthanne’s. 

Many of Scott’s defenders have noted that Scott really wants to be an inclusive mayor. I think that’s true. Scott talked to me about how proud he was at the kickoff of the Women’s Advancement Council — “I felt like I was really accomplishing something.” He wants to make Newton a better place for his daughter and all our young women. He wants to make sure women are represented in leadership positions in the city.

The question is whether he sufficiently attuned to the systemic bias that women face and to the advantages men (particularly CIS white men) have. Clearly, the ad suggests not. But, Scott recognizes that he missed how his words connect to the experience women have. And, I believe him when he says he wants to “take this as a learning experience” and “turn it into a positive.” Notably, in three different conversations with him, I didn’t sense even a hint of defensiveness (in contrast to his initial follow up). He seems to get it that he doesn’t wholly get it. And, I have little doubt that, if elected mayor, he would make an effort to get there.

A moment to address the suggestion in Scott’s original response and in comments here on V14 that somehow being accused of sexism (or racism or homophobia or able-ism, &c.) is an injury worse than sexism. It isn’t. Part of being sensitive to sexism (or racism or homophobia or able-ism, &c.) is recognizing that whatever slight you suffer undoubtedly pales in comparison with a woman’s experience (or that of a person of color or LGBTQ person or disabled person, &c.).

If a woman says that she understands that there is endemic structural bias against women, we should credit her with “getting it.” There have been suggestions that Ruthanne’s relative wealth insulates her from bias against women. Re-read her response to the ad. She’s speaking for all women. She feels it “in her gut” and says that as mayor you have to have “sensitivity in your bones.”

Does Ruthanne’s wealth insulate her from sexism in a way that might undermine her claims to get it? Funny and disturbing anecdote. Ruthanne relates knocking on doors with a male volunteer. At one house, the man who answered spoke only to Ruthanne’s associate.

The pertinent question is whether she’s sympathetic. Turns out, not all women are interested in fighting sexism. For Ruthanne skeptics, there’s the question of her contribution to Republican candidates, particularly George W. Bush. The Republican record on women’s issues is abysmal. Contributing to Republicans is a prima facie case of sexism or sexism defense.

Ruthanne’s response to my questions about her donations: “A friend asked me to write a check [to Bush]. I did. It was wrong. It was bad judgment.” Believe her? I do. Mostly because she did not apologize for her donations to Mitt Romney — a long-time family friend — and John McCain — whose service and heroism she admires. Seriously, Mitt “binders full of women” Romney?!?! Oy. 

More relevant is her recent political activity. According to her, “I believe in the power of government [to do good]. The Republican party has moved away from everything I believe about the power of government.” Her support of Democrats at all levels over the last decade and her support from Democrats — particularly Democratic women — in this race give credibility to her claim that she’s a progressive generally and more specifically as relates to women’s issues.

So, where does that leave us on gender in the 2017 Newton mayoral race? On the one hand you’ve got a candidate who earnestly and credibly claims that he has and will continue to fight for women, who acknowledges that he doesn’t fully get it, but is committed to working up the ladder to full woke. On the other hand, you have a candidate with a track record of supporting progressives and progressive causes, tainted by questionable donations, who is, relevantly, a woman.

Two good choices, but a meaningful difference.

* I know that the ad also raised issues of racial sensitivity. For this post, I’m going to stick to the issue of gender bias. I think the evidence about sensitivity to and sympathy for gender bias can fairly be extended to issues of race, sexual orientation, disability, &c. As always, the comment section is open for your feedback and insights!

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