Alumna holds College’s legacy close in race for Mass. governor

Martha Coakley ’75, an Eph from the College’s first class of women, if elected will be the first female governor of Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of Boston Magazine.
Martha Coakley ’75, an Eph from the College’s first class of women, if elected will be the first female governor of Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of Boston Magazine.

On Nov. 4, Americans will head to the voting booths, and for Massachusetts voters, the ballot will be headlined by an Eph: Martha Coakley ’75. After winning the democratic gubernatorial primary on Sept. 9, she is returning to the statewide ballot for the third time in four years, having lost to Scott Brown for the late Ted Kennedy’s senate seat in Jan. 2010. That November she won her reelection campaign for Massachusetts Attorney General, a position she has held since 2007.

Coakley’s career in politics goes back far beyond 2007: She ran for class president her senior year at the College. Hers was the first fully coeducational class, and had she won, she would have been the first woman to hold the position. If she wins the gubernatorial campaign, she will also be the first woman to serve as governor of Massachusetts. And her Berkshire roots go back further still: Coakley was born in Pittsfield and lived in North Adams until going the six miles up Route 2 to Williamstown for college.

Coakley and those who knew her at the College all agree that there is a clear line that can be traced from her political career to her days here. As an undergraduate student, she was a member of the Gargoyle Society, the co-chair and founder of Williams Women and was the only student on the search committee to replace President Jack Sawyer ’39.

Williams Women, an organization she founded with her classmate Gwen Rankin ’75, held a particular importance for Coakley. “It focused a lot on health issues, and changes and updates we needed around gynecological issues. We worked on putting out a Williams guide to health and sex that was for both men and women,” Coakley said. “We were a focal point with the career office and with Nancy McIntire, [the first female dean], on issues that were cropping up for women who were being integrated at a college that had been all-men for so many years.”

This was all very new for the College, because Coakley’s class was the first to admit women as first-years. There had been some transfers and exchange programs for several years, but for Coakley’s year they increased the class size by half to admit women. Women still only made up about a third of the class, but for the first time they were a major presence.

When she got to the College, she majored in the History of Ideas, a program created in 1971 by Frank Oakley, before he became president of the College.  It was, according to the brochure from 1973 in the Chapin Library, an “interdisciplinary program which introduce[d] the student, through six major sequence courses, to the foundations of the Western intellectual tradition and to pertinent methodological questions.”

“My time at Williams, having great professors, having good friends and thinking broadly about problem solving, and my major, thinking about ideas and how we work across platforms, has been very helpful for me,” said Coakley.

Donald Beaver, professor of history of science, taught Coakley for one of the major’s core classes, “The Idea of Science.” “She was an outstanding student, an active and inquisitive member of the class. Time has dimmed my recollections of that course, but I have always remembered Coakley, not least because she was a local from North Adams,” said Beaver.

Andrea Axelrod ’75, was Coakley’s entrymate in Sage A and lived with her the next two years, says that Coakley was always more focused on service and community than on scholarly work. “I think, for example, serving on that search committee for a new president, she sacrificed some grades for that,” she said. “We shared a sense of service.”

The two of them are still friends today, and their friendship makes it most clear that Coakley always had aspirations of running for office. While part of their friendship was based around things like a love of Broadway musicals (they sang “Sisters,” from White Christmas, in a talent show), they also wrote together at the Record-Advocate (a brief incarnation of the Record after its merger with the competing Williams Advocate). “Because I was going into journalism,” she said, “I remember we had a conversation early on, that you wanted to cover the news and I wanted to make the news,’” recalled Axelrod. “That isn’t an ego, that’s “I want to better the world.’”

Axelrod argues that Coakley had the makings of leadership from the beginning. “She was a natural-born leader who had to learn how to become a politician, rather than a natural-born politician who had to learn how to become a leader,” she said. “It was one of the first places to exhibit that leadership.”

Since graduating, Coakley has remained very connected to the College. She got to know President John Chandler, whom she helped select through the leadership studies program, for which she has taught Winter Study classes. She also spoke at Convocation in 2004 and Commencement in 2010, and served as co-head class agent for her class’s 25th reunion.

No one who knew Coakley at the College was surprised when she first ran for Senate. “She’s a very able person, and I have had very high regard for her,” Chandler said. “It didn’t surprise me at all that she ran for Senate.” Of course, Coakley was in 2009 a known quantity in Massachusetts politics. “She had by then achieved an excellent record as Attorney General,” said Beaver.

Asked about the College’s effect on her politics today, Coakley pointed, perhaps unsurprisingly, to the importance of education. “Every Williams student knows what difference it makes to have a good education,” said Coakley. “It opens your mind and opens your doors.”

Additional reporting by Lauren Bender.