Dear 9-year-old girls of Boston,
Those of you who are interested in politics may have noticed something odd about the field forming to succeed Mayor Tom Menino. So far, eight men have declared they’ll run for his job.
Eight men. As in, no women.
And it doesn’t look likely any women will step in at this point. I hope this seems weird to you. It sure does to me. If no woman puts her hand up at the municipal level, what hope do we have of redressing the crazy lopsidedness in the rest of the political system?
This is not just a Boston problem: Only nine of the state’s 46 mayors are women, and a little under a quarter of the legislators on Beacon Hill. What gives?
Many of you are at that glorious point in life where you believe with all your heart that girls can do anything. But something happens between where you are now and graduating college to make women reluctant to enter politics. A recently released American University study found that, among college students, men who had considered running for office far outnumbered women — 57 percent to 37 percent.
Women typically have to be asked multiple times, by multiple people, to run for office, says Adrienne Kimmell, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which is trying to up the number of women in politics. It’s harder to raise money, because fewer women move in circles where donors can write big checks. They’re judged more harshly for missteps, so their campaigns have to emerge fully formed, she says. Men are more likely to wake up one day and say, “Yeah, I’d make an absolutely incredible mayor, let me give that a shot.”
Even for women who emerge from college with their political ambition intact, life can throw up hurdles. Half of today’s top political leaders first ran for office at 35 or younger, according to a Rutgers study. The way to rise is to get in young, stay in, and keep trading up. For women with young children, that is much more difficult than it should be. State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz was a natural candidate in this mayoral race. But she is due to give birth in the midst of the short, and grueling, campaign. It wasn’t the only factor in her decision to opt out, but it was a significant one.
Nobody wants to talk about this, because it fuels the idiotic idea that women are somehow biologically less suited to office. What it should fuel instead is outrage over the fact that we as a society still make it so hard for women with young children to function as full members of the workplace. But right now, the only way for them to lean into politics is to pay for ridiculously expensive child-care, or, like state Representative Linda Dorcena Forry — a state Senate candidate and parent of four — to have a giant family network in place to help. (Perhaps if she’d known Menino was going to exit, she might have run for mayor, sparing us this lamentable state of affairs.)
Why have no other women stepped up? Some potential candidates are happy in their current jobs. Others are simply reluctant to take the leap, the short campaign exacerbating their fund-raising disadvantages. It highlights the weakness of Boston’s political farm team.
But all is not lost. There is an upside to the fact that all those (male) city councilors are jumping into this political pool with the abandon of revelers at the tail end of a keg party. When all is said and done, there may be as many as four open council seats come November. That huge churn offers a chance to up the representation of women on the 13-member council from one to four, or even five – with impressive candidates like attorney Michelle Wu, former educator Suzanne Lee, and others whose names we don’t know yet.
We’d still be way behind the dreams of 9-year-olds like you. But it’s a start.