Matt Murphy, "Is 'unbecoming' becoming a sexist word? Warren Tolman apologizes after calling opponent Maura Healey unbecoming during debate", State House News Service 8/27/2014:
BOSTON — Democratic attorney general candidate Warren Tolman apologized on Wednesday if anyone was offended by his use of the word "unbecoming" to describe his opponent Maura Healey's criticism of his private sector record, as female Healey supporters blasted the comment as "sexist."
Tolman used the word during a Boston Globe Opinion debate Tuesday as Healey criticized him for not being forthcoming about his registration as a federal lobbyist while working as an attorney at Holland & Knight.
The episode conjured memories of a 2002 debate when former candidate for governor Mitt Romney drew the ire of prominent women like Teresa Heinz Kerry and Hillary Clinton for describing then Treasurer Shannon O'Brien's attacks on his abortion position as "unbecoming."
D.C., who sent in the link, wondered whether "'Unbecoming' is to women as 'Burly' is to African-Americans?"
This does seem rather like the "burly" case, in that I can find little or no evidence in the word's history or current usage patterns to support the complaint.
When I look at uses of unbecoming in the current Google News index, ignoring the many stories about the Tolman/Healey issue, the first ten that I find are all about individual men or about a mixed-sex group. The reason for the lack of references to women in these examples, as far as I can see, is that unbecoming is mainly used in news stories to refer to inappropriate behavior or actions of a political character, or in the fixed phrase "conduct unbecoming", which is typically used of police or military officers. Since political malfeasance and police misconduct generally involve men, most example of unbecoming in the news also refer to men:
The Department of Public Safety said in a news release that Lance Cpl. R.S. Salter was terminated for violating agency policies including conduct unbecoming a state employee.
Pillow said that if the picture is what it appears to be, Dooley may face issues of conduct unbecoming an officer.
The OHP formally disciplined Martin for 'conduct unbecoming of an officer' however no criminal charges resulted.
Sterling's behavior was unbecoming of an owner (or anyone else for that matter), and any two-time domestic violence offender is also not fit to play in the NFL.
"Texans deserve real leadership and this is unbecoming of our governor," Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. He demanded that Perry immediately resign.
"During the tenure of Dr. Cooper as superintendent, there has been conduct, in my opinion, unbecoming of the professional instructional leader of the Lafayette Parish School System," Blunt said at a special Thursday board meeting.
The comments by Guido Mantega, which the opposition and some analysts criticized as unbecoming of a sitting finance minister, came on the eve of the release of official data that is expected to show that Brazil, Latin America's largest economy, is already in recession.
Price, who along with Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) appears to have taken the lead in drafting the public admonishment, called Hall’s conduct as a member of UT’s governing board “unbecoming.”
The poison pen letter began this way: “What happened at Newfane Town Hall on Saturday, July 26, was mob rule televised. Maybe I’m being too dramatic, but you have to admit, it was rude and unbecoming.” A “mob?” For those whose only knowledge of what triggered Skop’s outburst comes from his letter, here it is: Half the audience rose to their feet and left the room when Muscato appeared ready to try a takeover of the meeting after being allowed to speak and use the microphone.
It is unbecoming of Mr Au to cast aspersions on MOM officers who work tirelessly to help all employees, including foreign workers, resolve their salary claims.
The only example that doesn't fall into the category of "inappropriate political or police/military behavior" is this one, which refers to words on signs (carried, as it happens, by men):
Scantily clad girls in hardly anything but bras and underwear stumbled onto the platform, followed by guys in snapbacks and unbelievably clean sneakers and tank tops bearing unbecoming words in neon.
So it would seem odd to insist that it's OK to use unbecoming to describe allegedly inappropriate actions by male politicians, but sexist to use the same word in reference to the same sort of action on the part of a female politician.
One possible reason for (over?) sensitivity on this point is that in the pattern "conduct unbecoming an X", some people may think of X=woman as a common value.
Thus Regina Morantz-Sanchez, Conduct Unbecoming a Woman : Medicine on Trial in Turn-of-the-Century Brooklyn, 1999:
In the spring of 1889, a burgeoning Brooklyn newspaper, the Daily Eagle, printed a series of articles that detailed a history of midnight hearses and botched operations performed by a scalpel-eager female surgeon named Dr. Mary Dixon-Jones. The ensuing avalanche of public outrage gave rise to two trials–one for manslaughter and one for libel–that became a late nineteenth-century sensation. Vividly recreating both trials, Regina Morantz-Sanchez provides a marvelous historical whodunit, inviting readers to sift through the evidence and evaluate the witnesses. Conduct Unbecoming a Woman is mesmerizing as an intricately crafted suspense novel. Jars of specimens and surgical mannequins became common spectacles in the courtroom, and the roughly 300 witnesses that testified represented a fascinating social cross-section of the city's inhabitants, from humble immigrant craftsmen and seamstresses to some of New York and Brooklyn's most prestigious citizens and physicians. Like many legal extravaganzas of our own time, the Mary Dixon-Jones trials highlighted broader social issues in America. It unmasked apprehension about not only the medical and social implications of radical gynecological surgery, but also the rapidly changing role of women in society. Indeed, the courtroom provided a perfect forum for airing public doubts concerning the reputation of one "unruly" woman doctor whose life-threatening procedures offered an alternative to the chronic, debilitating pain of 19th-century women. Clearly a extraordinary event in 1892, the cases disappeared from the historical record only a few years later. "Conduct Unbecoming a Woman" brilliantly reconstructs both the Dixon-Jones trials and the historic panorama that was 1890s Brooklyn.
But in COHA, X cashes out as officer (24), teacher (7), gentleman (4), member (2), judge (2), senator (2), and policeman (1). "Conduct unbecoming a woman" doesn't occur in COHA's 400-odd millions of words. And amazingly enough, "conduct unbecoming a woman" also doesn't occur in the Google Books ngram corpus (at least not with high enough frequency to be retained in the 4-gram index):
X=lady does occur, but is swamped by X=gentleman:
The only other thing that I can think of is related to the specific sort of behavior that Tolman was complaining about. Here's a description of the context (Matt Murphy, "Healey, Tolman tangle at Globe debate", WWLP 828/2014:
Healey, who appeared at times to grow frustrated by Tolman’s loquacious answers, said Tolman owes it to be upfront with the voters about his lobbying work and his past associations with the online gaming group Fast Strike Games and a hedge fund if he serious about tackling corruption and bird-dogging the fledgling casino industry in Massachusetts.
“I wish you’d talk more about what you’ve done for the past 10 years,” Healey challenged Tolman during the final moments of the debate, pivoting off Tolman’s discussion of his work on ethics law reforms during his time in the state Senate.
“You are not the people’s lobbyist. You are not there for Beacon Hill,” Healey said.
Tolman responded, “Maura, It’s just unbecoming. I’m just surprised you continue to push these issues rather than talk about the issues people care about.”
Tolman is complaining that Healey's aggressive persistence is inappropriate, and that sort of complaint is sometimes legitimately felt to be sexist. But his use of the word unbecoming is not relevant, as far as I can see.