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Final OT

Adrian Walker

Council risks taking a step backward

In 1973, Kevin White was in the second of his four terms as mayor, Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America, and Richard Nixon was struggling to explain away Watergate.

And the nine-member Boston City Council was, for the last time, an all-male bastion.

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Soon it may return to that dubious status. While three women - Ayanna Pressley, Suzanne Lee, and Sheneal Parker - are on the ballot for the upcoming council election, it is entirely possible that none of them will win. That would be a dramatic step backward from the 1990s, when the council had four women.

Seen through a historic lens, there is nothing surprising about the lack of female representation in the halls of power in the state.

“Welcome to liberal Massachusetts,’’ said Mary Anne Marsh, a political consultant. “We’ve never had a woman mayor, an elected woman governor, or a woman senator. And we have one of the smallest percentages of women legislators in the country. If you’re a woman running for office in Massachusetts, there’s no such thing as an easy race.’’

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Indeed, Massachusetts has long lagged behind other New England states in electing women at just about every level. For a contrast, look no farther than Maine and New Hampshire, both of which are now represented by two female US senators.

Even in the early 1970s, the all-male city council was a novelty in a world in which women were entering the political arena. Louise Day Hicks - best remembered now for her staunch opposition to busing - had left the council to serve a single term in Congress. Eventually, she returned to become the council’s first female president. It has had multiple female members for the past 30 years.

Now, Pressley, the lone incumbent in the group, is battling three other incumbents and former councilor and mayoral candidate Michael Flaherty for one of four at-large seats. Lee is battling incumbent Bill Linehan in a district that includes South Boston, Chinatown, and the South End. Parker is running in Roxbury where she finished far behind incumbent, Tito Jackson, in September’s preliminary.

The majority of city residents - and, at least in theory, voters - are women. But the evidence suggests that may have relatively little impact. Carol Hardy-Fanta, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, partly blames female voters.

“As we saw in the Coakley [Senate] campaign, women have bought into the idea that race and gender shouldn’t matter in decision-making’’ Hardy-Fanta said. “I think that has led to women thinking it’s not that important.’’

Hardy-Fanta argues that a range of issues go unaddressed when women are not in office to advocate for them. She points to domestic violence, teen pregnancy, and child care as examples of issues that suffer. Although that view tends to stereotype politicians of both genders, there’s no arguing that women have been the champions of such issues.

Hardy-Fanta points out that 40 percent of the city and town councils in the state have no female member. But the notion of an all-male city council along with a male mayor just feels antiquated. It’s almost a throwback to the days when the business community, in the form of the Vault group, virtually ran the city without the inconvenience of public feedback. Anyone feel nostalgic for that?

The alarm may be premature. One or all three candidates may well pull through. But in an election with few driving issues, this feels like one more nonissue for many voters.

“I think it would be an egregious error for voters to let this happen,’’ Hardy-Fanta said. “There are so many issues that just aren’t going to be on the agenda.’’

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.
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