When Warren Tolman called Maura Healey’s aggressive line of questioning “unbecoming” in a debate this week for Democratic candidates running for attorney general, it went unnoticed by most in the crowd.
But hours later, when word began to spread, the response by women’s political groups and Healey’s campaign was fierce. They called the remark sexist and demeaning. They sent out a fund-raising plea “to keep Maura’s fight going.” And the next day, Tolman apologized.
Tolman, in a statement, said the point he was trying to make was that “as candidates for attorney general, we should be held to a higher standard.”
The incident underscores the way in which words can become toxic when gender and politics come into play, and it echoes the 2002 Massachusetts governor’s race, when the actions of Democrat Shannon O’Brien, now a Tolman supporter, were deemed “unbecoming” during a debate by her opponent, Republican Mitt Romney.
Then, as now, the description raised the ire of female supporters, who used it to rally their cause and fire up their base.
But women who support Tolman criticized the Healey campaign’s attempt to inject gender politics into a race over a word they think was just an innocent utterance by a candidate who has long supported women’s issues.
“It felt like spin to me, and it hurts women,” said Kim Driscoll, the mayor of Salem and cochair of Tolman’s campaign.
“If we’re going to cry foul over harmless statements, it only diminishes the impact over substantive statements and issues.”
The dictionary defines “unbecoming” as “not pleasing, unattractive” or “not proper, indecorous.”
Political analysts say that it is one of many words that can be used to belittle female candidates who are trying to break through the male-denominated world of politics.
“Unfortunately, this is not uncommon,” said Ann Bookman, director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
“Things are attributed to women, either personal appearance or personal characteristics, that we never hear for male candidates.”
It happened in 2012 during the Senate race in Missouri, when Claire McCaskill’s male opponent described her as not particularly “ladylike” during a debate. It happened the same year in Minnesota, when Senator Amy Klobuchar was referred to as a “Daddy’s little girl” and a “prom queen” by her male opponent’s campaign.
The exchange between Tolman and Healey took place Tuesday in the final minutes of the debate as the two were discussing ethics reform, at which point Healey pivoted the conversation to Tolman’s work over the past decade.
She said she wished that he would talk more about his jobs working for a hedge fund, an online gaming company, and as a lobbyist. He responded that they were “baseless” accusations with “no merit in fact.”
But she continued pressing, and the conversation became tense.
“Maura, it’s just unbecoming,” Tolman said. “I’m just surprised. You continue to push these issues rather than talking about the big issues you want to address.”
Women’s rights groups — including the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus and Emily’s List — and political activists pounced, saying that the word was a coded way to demean assertive women and an implication that she was somehow acting out of place.
Barbara Lee, of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which is dedicated to getting more women involved in politics, tweeted: “Code for close race = #unbecoming #unladylike #cold #bossy. Men always try to knock women off pedestal[s] like this in #mapoli and beyond.”
Marcy Stech, a spokeswoman for Emily’s List, which backs Democratic female contenders who support abortion rights, said Tolman “took a swipe at a candidate that will have consequences with women voters who are paying attention to this race. This kneejerk reaction will offend Massachusetts women more than draw attention to the real issues.”
And by Tuesday evening Healey’s campaign had sent out an e-mailed fund-raising appeal titled “Unbecoming? Seriously, Warren Tolman?”
That e-mail alerted Renée M. Landers, a longtime Tolman supporter and friend, to the situation.
Landers sits on the board of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, and the Healey fund-raising letter was written by Marty Walz, who is head of Planned Parenthood and its political advocacy arm.
So when it landed in her inbox, Landers said, “I immediately sent an objection. It was completely unfair. He meant nothing about trying to demean women or anything like that. I knew what he meant.”
She said the first thing that comes to her mind when she hears the term “unbecoming” is “conduct that is inappropriate to the standards applied to one’s position, and I think that was exactly what he was trying to assert regarding Maura and her conduct during the debate.”
In an interview, Healey said that she was disappointed by Tolman’s use of the word, which she found “dismissive,” but she accepted his apology.
“Did I think it was an attempt to be dismissive and an attempt to shut down a line of questioning in a conversation? Yes,” she said.
Akilah Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.