On November 8, 2016 — Election Day — in those blissful hours before the world learned that Donald Trump would become president, my husband and I learned that I was pregnant. That night I went to bed early, dreaming of raising our baby in a world where women lead at the highest levels.
Like so many women in the era of Trump, my devastation the next morning —turned into resolve. I’ve had to measure my son’s developmental milestones against our democracy’s decline over weeks, months, and years. Every new insult to our American ideals or assault on our communities is a reminder of how urgently we must fight for the futures of all our children.
As the 2020 presidential campaign has resurfaced reminders of the extra scrutiny and barriers that women candidates face, Boston’s local politics offers a glimmer of hope about just how fast the dynamic can change when sparked by even a very small number of new voices emerging to redefine what leadership looks like.
Women are leading the way, and in Boston, women of color are overseeing a political transformation for a more representative government and more connected community.
When I first ran for City Council in 2013, I was told over and over again that I would likely lose, and for reasons beyond my control: I was too young, not born in Boston, Asian American, female. The words of caution came from the most well-informed and well-intentioned observers of Boston politics. At that time, Ayanna Pressley was the only woman serving on the 13-member Council as well as the only woman of color ever to have served. My election doubled our numbers — from one to two.
Since then the barriers have crumbled more quickly than the barrier-breakers could have imagined. In 2015 we doubled in number again, from two women of color serving on the Council to four; then from four to six in 2017. In 2018 the elections of District Attorney Rachael Rollins and Ayanna Pressley’s congressional race victory shook up the political establishment. In 2019, for the first time in Boston’s history, voters elected a City Council in which women and people of color make up the majority, including the Council’s first Afro-Latina immigrant member and first openly LGBTQ woman. Today, eight women serve on the Boston City Council, including six women of color.
This rapid shift underscores just how quickly progress builds on itself. When women run for political office to lift up communities and deliver change, the impact goes beyond winning a seat. As candidates from outside the political establishment empower activists who are organizing around policy and movement-building, we change the public perception of who can win an election, inspire activists to run for office themselves, and in turn energize even higher voter turnout to support candidates from underrepresented communities.
The new political ecosystem transforms what is possible for activists in local politics and supercharges the atmosphere for local government to be a platform for activism.
Most strikingly, today’s Boston City Council has emerged as a powerful platform for advocacy, driving the policy agenda and empowering residents to become involved with local government. We’ve tackled climate change through legislation on renewable energy and food justice. We’ve fed a national movement for public transportation as a public good. We’ve focused on equity in city contracting as a step toward closing the racial wealth gap. We’ve closed corporate loopholes with short-term rentals legislation to stabilize residential housing stock. We’ve pushed solutions for educational equity, immigrant justice, and healthy communities.
The Boston and America that my kids will grow up in will be a more equitable, sustainable, and joyful community thanks to the trailblazing women at all levels of government.
Michelle Wu is a Boston City Councilor.