Boston’s nearly 200-year streak of white, male mayors is officially over. With Mayor Marty Walsh probably departing to head the US Department of Labor, City Council President Kim Janey will become Boston’s first Black and first woman chief executive officer.
While Janey may be the first woman and person of color to occupy the office, she won’t be the last. So far, three city councilors — Andrea Campbell, Annissa Essaibi George, and Michelle Wu — have jumped into the mayor’s race. All three are qualified, capable leaders and women of color. If Janey decides to run too, she’ll bring the total to four.
For a city like Boston, it’s an embarrassment of riches. Selecting just one candidate to be our city’s next leader will be a real challenge.
What a refreshing problem to have.
After all, Boston is home to one of the oldest old boys’ clubs in America. For generations, the city’s politics were insular and homogenous. To get elected, you had to know a guy (and be a guy). And in most districts, you had to be white.
In recent years, that has started to change. In Boston, women and people of color are gaining ground with each election cycle. In 2020, for the first time ever, the majority of city council seats were held by women and minorities.
These changes mirror national trends. Women are running — and winning — in record numbers, and our research at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation shows that will not change anytime soon. Over the past few years, Atlanta, Chicago, New Orleans, and San Francisco have all elected Black women mayors. And in January, a Black and South Asian woman shattered the country’s second highest glass ceiling to become vice president.
Yet until today, Boston was one of the last major American cities with a proverbial “boys only” sign still tacked to the mayor’s door. With Janey expected to be installed in City Hall as acting mayor, and the race for mayor underway, our colonial city has a chance to leap into the modern era at last.
And not a moment too soon.
Boston, like the country as a whole, faces a set of urgent crises — the COVID-19 pandemic, political and economic crises, and a reckoning with systemic racism and police violence. These are crises that women leaders are especially well equipped to meet. Our research shows that, when hard times hit, voters want leaders who can take a broad view of the situation, communicate clearly with the public about what they see, and work across the aisle to design and implement solutions. It also shows that voters trust women leaders more across each of these three areas.
Diverse leadership is vital for another reason, too. As I wrote last April, crises always hit the most vulnerable in our society hardest. More diverse perspectives catch more blind spots, ensuring the burden doesn’t fall disproportionately on women, especially women of color.
No matter who wins in November, Janey and the women running for mayor have already changed Boston politics forever. It’s been said that you can’t be what you can’t see, and for many women, the “imagination barrier” remains one of the stubborn impediments to executive office.
When I began my work more than two decades ago to help elect more women, there were few women mayoral candidates and even fewer women mayors across the country. The lack of role models meant voters were unable to imagine even the most accomplished, capable, and brilliant women in executive office.
Seeing multiple women in serious contention for mayor of Boston was something even I couldn’t imagine back then. Yet, as we saw during the 2020 presidential race, when six women took the debate stage for the first time in history, it takes only one election cycle to shatter that barrier to pieces. It’s now hard to imagine any presidential election without multiple women in the running, or even another all-male ticket. And now that Janey is expected to become acting mayor of Boston, it’s hard to imagine a future without diverse leadership at every level of city government.
The only question left is who among the growing field of qualified, diverse candidates will Bostonians choose? As they say, it’s a good problem to have.
Barbara Lee is founder and president of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.