Over the last few weeks of witnessing the Nashville mayoral race, apart from feeling queasy it strikes me how cautiously a female candidate must straddle the political high wire when campaigning. One can almost hear the familiar parental/guardian edict echoing to young girls and women of all races and generations: just watch your tone young lady.
And while some women may be lucky enough to avoid being saddled by the gender focused admonishment, watching Megan Barry in the race against David Fox reminds the ‘fairer sex’ that regardless of how educated, successful and qualified a woman is, she will—more often than not--be expected to mind the tone lest the girlhood warning return to haunt her.
While most women have been told at one point or another: it’s not what you say but how you say it, it certainly seems that when a woman speaks, she must weigh both what she says and how she says it—especially when competing with a man.
For instance, Barry acknowledged early on in the mayoral race that Fox’s brother, George, a wealthy hedge fund operator funded his campaign through a mysterious Super PAC. It wasn’t an accusation or salacious gossip, but merely a fact. The Fox camp seemed to take exception to Barry leaning on the truth and struck back as if Barry had sprinkled familial lies on the breakfast cereal of hungry voters.
It’s difficult to determine whether Barry’s tone wasn’t right or if the facts were simply not welcomed. But from that point on everything from Barry’s public service record, to how she recites the Pledge of Allegiance to her husband’s personal views on the separation of church and state became fodder for distortion. Fox’s campaign paid for numerous ads discrediting Barry—first suggesting she is light on experience and then ripping apart her tenure as a Metro City Council member (which is ironic since she was re-elected in 2011 to a second four-year term and is the only one of the two with actual governmental experience). So which one is it? Is she light on experience or does she have a horrendous record?
Most women learn on the first day of kindergarten that while it’s true you get more flies with honey, simply refusing a request from a male counterpart--whether on the playground, the boardroom or a political campaign--often incites indignation if not retaliation.
Following the contentious and heated primary election--which resulted in Barry winning 24% of the vote, Fox finishing second with 23% and Bill Freeman coming in third with 21%--Barry and Freeman met. Despite the fact that Barry is in closer alignment with Freeman’s platform than Fox (and both Barry and Freeman are registered Democrats), Freeman told the Tennessean he “wanted to back Megan, but changed my mind after meeting with her” and “decided to stay neutral.”
According to numerous sources— in exchange for his support, Freeman asked Barry for something not uncommon in politics these days: to commit jobs for Freeman backers in a potential Barry administration. It certainly wasn’t an absurd request--as back room deals are made all the time. But because Barry made a pledge not to offer any ‘deals’ or offer positions before taking office, she was unable to agree and told Freeman ‘no’.
And this is where things get challenging for Freeman supporters. Was it Barry’s refusal to offer a job quid pro quo to a member of his political team the reason Freeman declined to endorse her or was it ‘how’ she refused? Was there something unacceptable (and unforgiveable) about an unequivocal “no” that might have been interpreted differently if she were a man?
I like to think the answer is no and my limited (and positive) exposure to Bill Freeman urges me to hope not. But several decades of watching my tone makes me wonder if perhaps there is more to the story.
What doesn’t go unnoticed for Barry supporters (or Fox for that matter) is that Freeman’s refusal to join other candidates in endorsing Barry, like Howard Gentry, Charles Bone and former Governor Phil Bredesen, speaks volumes. Some speculate that in such a closely contested race, neutrality is essentially an unofficial endorsement for Fox.
For women in Nashville who are weary of watching their tones and curbing their tongues, perhaps Thursday offers an opportunity to vote for a woman who dared to say no. And hopefully on Friday morning, Bill Freeman (and other Democrats) won’t regret that he didn’t say yes.