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Women make historic electoral gains over four years

Representative Ayanna Pressley, shown at the BCYF Shelburne Gym where she went to cast her vote, said verbal attacks on women in politics have "only intensified and become more unrelenting.”John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

An occasional series about women’s gains and losses in the Trump era

Four years ago, the defeat of the first major-party female presidential nominee by a man who’d boasted about sexually assaulting women reignited a women’s movement.

Payback would follow in the upcoming elections, women warned on signs they hoisted by the thousands the day after President Trump’s inauguration. “Today We March, Tomorrow We Run,” the women’s marchers threatened.

A review of electoral gains over the past four years shows women seized power at all levels of government, though they still haven’t come close to parity. Congress is less than one-quarter female. Even in liberal Massachusetts, female candidates' successes boosted women’s representation in the Legislature to just 29 percent.


For Massachusetts women, the biggest gains came closest to home. Thirty percent of the elected officials governing the state’s 351 municipalities today are women, up from 24 percent in 2016, a Globe review found.

Women’s electoral victories and sustained political engagement have been a bright spot in an otherwise dark and disorienting time for many. The revelations of the #MeToo movement and reports of gendered pay inequities exposed how many women still felt disempowered in the workplace, and the policy reversals of the past few years cost women the guarantee of free birth control and greater assumptions of credibility in campus sexual assault cases. Even legal access to abortion is now on the line.

“It’s an incredibly cruel contradiction,” said Representative Ayanna Pressley, who vaulted to Congress in the historic 2018 midterms with the largest group of new congresswomen in history. In D.C., she said, those women now face an administration “that seeks to roll back the gains we’ve made at every turn.”

One hundred years after women claimed the right to vote, the outcome of the presidential election may hinge on their vote, pollsters predict. Numerous polls have identified a gaping and historic gender gap, with women overwhelmingly favoring former vice president Joe Biden, while male voters favor Trump.


“I think we’re going to be looking at a historic number of women voting,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, which helps elect Democratic women who support abortion rights. “This is not a moment, this is a sea change for women’s involvement in American politics.”

Most of the energy has come from the left, where frustration with the 2016 election inspired not only a wave of activism but also extraordinary numbers of aspiring female candidates. In the runup to the 2016 election cycle, a record 920 women contacted Emily’s List about running for office. Since then, the number who have expressed interest has surpassed 60,000, Schriock said.

A rally on Boston Common protested President Trump and the Supreme Court nomination. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Rather than disappear between women’s marches, many of those politically awakened in 2016 have remained activists in their communities, said Nina Liang, a Quincy city councilor and executive director of Emerge Massachusetts, a candidate training program for Democratic women. March Forward Quincy, for instance, began hosting candidate forums for council and school committee candidates in early 2017; last week, members joined a rally to extend eviction protections during the pandemic.

That activism, Liang said, "started with a group of women who went to a march because of what happened with our president.”

On the opposite side of the aisle, Republican women did not see a similar surge in energy or candidacy. Only one new Republican woman was elected to the House in 2018, when nearly three dozen Democratic women claimed seats, according to Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics, a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. The House has the same number of GOP women today as in 1990, Dittmar noted.


But this year’s elections could end up being historic for Republican women, she said. The GOP nominated a record number of women to the House (94) in 2020 and matched the record for Senate nominees (8).

“If it was a good year for Republicans, they would be situated to win just as Democratic women did in 2018,” Dittmar said.

In progressive Massachusetts, where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 10 to 1 and Trump is deeply unpopular, Republican women have had a tougher run. (Besides Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, GOP women hold no statewide offices, congressional offices, or seats in the Senate; six are currently serving in the House.)

Rather than increase their activism during this period, Republican women in Massachusetts have kept their heads down, wary of being tarred by partisan association, said Jennifer Nassour, former chairwoman of the state GOP and founder of a candidate training program for Republican women. Many have been outraged by the liberal implication that feminism and Republicanism are incompatible.

“Why is it that we can’t be feminists? Why can only women on the left change the world?" Nassour said.

Historically, women from both parties have been outnumbered in local politics, which has left few prepared to compete for higher office. But Pamela E. Berman, president of the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus, said that increasing political engagement is “really deepening the bench."


Interest has soared at Emerge Massachusetts, Liang said. The program has been operating for 12 years, but 64 percent of alumnae participated within the last four.

Since 2016, Emerge trained 270 women, including four of the eight women who now dominate the 13-member Boston City Council. (Two pre-2016 alumnae, Councilors Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell, are running for mayor.)

Over the past four years, women’s candidacies fueled a 27 percent increase in female leadership governing Massachusetts municipalities, a Globe analysis found.

The Globe tallied all elected executive positions in local governments — mayors, city councilors, town councilors, and members of boards of selectmen or aldermen (not including school committees).

A total of 552 women are now elected to 1,833 executive positions in local governments, the analysis found. That’s up from 434 women in 1,802 elected positions that were available in 2016, according to data compiled by the Blue Lab, a student-run political incubator.

Gaps in representation remain. Seventy-seven of the state’s 351 municipalities have no female elected officials at all. That list includes some of the same towns now as it did four years ago, including Lynnfield, Belmont, Burlington,and Sherborn.

But women broke into leadership in many cities and towns, sometimes making history. Shutesbury elected an all-female Board of Selectmen two election cycles in a row. In Alford, a rural community of fewer than 500 in the Berkshires, horticulturalist Peggy Rae Hendon-Wilson became the first woman ever elected to the Board of Selectmen in 2018. The following year, her board began calling itself the Select Board. About 100 Massachusetts communities have likewise adopted gender-neutral names, most within the past four years, and sometimes to immediate effect.


The day after Trump’s election, activists in Winchester proposed a name change to make local government more inviting. Soon, three women were elected, forming the first female majority of the renamed Select Board.

Reading, which had no female selectmen in 2016, also changed its name, and now has a female majority on its five-member Select Board.

“It’s more common to see women running for office,” said board Chairwoman Karen Herrick. “People aren’t acting like it’s so novel anymore.”

Women have made less dramatic inroads in state politics. Massachusetts, despite its progressive reputation, ranks 27th in its share of female legislators, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. The 200-member Legislature includes 58 elected women (29 percent), up from 50 in 2016 (25 percent).

“We need to have a truly representative democracy,” said state Representative Tami Gouveia, who was elected in 2018, the year after she organized the Women’s March on Washington for Massachusetts. "And we don’t.”

A vivid reminder of the stakes came in early 2017, when Vice President Mike Pence tweeted an image showing politicians around a conference table negotiating health care changes, including a repeal of mandatory maternity care. Every politician at the table was a white man.

Representation matters, Democratic women candidates argued the next year, and voters took heed. The 2018 midterms ushered in the most diverse Congress in history and boosted women’s representation to 23.7 percent. Four years after Trump’s election, women hold 127 seats in Congress, up from 105. Massachusetts now has four women in its 11-member congressional delegation, including newcomers Lori Trahan and Pressley.

Ayanna Pressley spoke as, Ilhan Abdullahi Omar (D-MN)(L), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) (2R), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) held a press conference, to address remarks made by President Trump on July 15, 2019 at the Capitol.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

This election cycle, a record 298 female US House candidates made it to the ballot, including a record 115 women of color, according to CAWP. The number of Black women running for the House rose from 27 in 2016 to 61 in 2020, a record high, according to CAWP.

The flip side is backlash. Despite their growing numbers, women in politics continue to be targets of derision and harassment. Pressley, one of the four celebrated women of color in their first term in Congress who called themselves “The Squad,” faced verbal attacks from the president and online vitriol.

“Unfortunately it’s been part of our experience as women, and that didn’t stop because we have a comma and a title after our name," Pressley said. "It has only intensified and become more unrelenting.”

She remains focused on why she’s at the table — to amplify the perspective of constituents whose voices have been marginalized in the past.

“This isn’t a sorority. This is not a slumber party," Pressley said. “This matters because we’re building power.”

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her @StephanieEbbert.