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OPINION

An inclusive City Council ensures Boston’s government works for all

Although many people consider the Commonwealth a stronghold for progressive politics, women and people of color have been chronically underrepresented in elected office statewide.

From left: City Councilors Lydia Edwards, Annissa Essaibi George, and Kim Janey, then-City Council President Andrea Campbell, and City Councilors Ayanna Pressley and Michelle Wu pose for a photograph after the first City Council meeting of the year in Boston on Jan. 2, 2018.
From left: City Councilors Lydia Edwards, Annissa Essaibi George, and Kim Janey, then-City Council President Andrea Campbell, and City Councilors Ayanna Pressley and Michelle Wu pose for a photograph after the first City Council meeting of the year in Boston on Jan. 2, 2018.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Nearly 400 years after John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts, envisioned “a city upon a hill,” Boston is once again a beacon of hope and progress. For the first time ever, Boston will elect a woman of color as our mayor.

The women mayoral candidates who grabbed attention across the state and the country all began their path to executive office as members of the Boston City Council. The success of all four women who ran — Andrea Campbell, Annissa Essaibi George, Michelle Wu, and Acting Mayor Kim Janey — testifies to the need to build a diverse bench of candidates, starting with the seats they originally occupied.

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In Massachusetts, such diversity is long overdue. Although many people consider the Commonwealth a stronghold for progressive politics, women and people of color have been chronically underrepresented in elected office statewide.

Boston is the original old boys’ club — even more accurately, the original old white boys’ club. And not just in the mayor’s office. From 1909 to 2015, only 10 women served on the Boston City Council. Just two served as its president. Women of color still face additional challenges in a city that was once called the “most racist” in America.

The Boston City Council, chaired by Councilor-at-Large Annissa Essaibi George, third from right, holds a working session on the Opioid Crisis on Aug. 13, 2019.
The Boston City Council, chaired by Councilor-at-Large Annissa Essaibi George, third from right, holds a working session on the Opioid Crisis on Aug. 13, 2019.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

This aligns with our Barbara Lee Family Foundation research, which shows that women candidates running for executive office are held to higher standards than their male counterparts. Voters often assume that male candidates can manage a crisis, handle budgets, and hold their ground in tough debates. Female candidates must prove it.

In part, this double standard stems from an “imagination barrier”: the fact that many voters struggle to envision women as leaders when they’ve seen so few in real life.

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That’s where the Boston City Council comes in.

City councils have long served as a proving ground for those who seek higher office. Recent years have shown that for women, this platform can be particularly powerful. Today’s female mayors from Atlanta, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., all began their political careers as councilors. Here in Boston, Ayanna Pressley served as the first Black woman on the City Council before being elected Massachusetts’ first Black congresswoman.

Now, we’re watching this pipeline work once again.

Both women moving on to the general election were capable well before they stepped foot into City Hall. One worked as a teacher, and one in public service. Both women have owned their own businesses.

But it was their work as city councilors that proved their readiness for higher office. On the City Council, they have demonstrated the political skills voters seek in women candidates: working across the aisle, managing complex economic issues, communicating with constituents, and handling crises as wide-ranging as homelessness and the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the process, Essaibi George and Wu proved they are qualified to lead the city. They developed records that highlight for voters who, my foundation’s research shows, need to be convinced that women are up to the task of executive leadership. And they broke down the imagination barrier brick by brick.

Come November, Bostonians will elect a mayor who is not a white man for the very first time. It will become the 28th major city led by a woman, and the 11th major city led by a woman of color. No matter which candidate wins, she will lead Boston with grace and grit. Our mayor will have years of experience, compassion for the marginalized, and connections with the community.

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And she is just one reason why Boston’s future is so bright.

In 2019, the Boston City Council finally began to reflect our majority-minority population. Eight out of 13 members of the Boston City Council are women, and seven are people of color. This year’s City Council race is poised to make that milestone permanent. Over half of the candidates for councilor are women and over half are people of color.

An inclusive City Council is an important step to ensure Boston’s government works for all its citizens. And it’s the best way to ensure that when we elect a woman to the mayor’s office this November, she will be the first of many.

Let’s do our part by supporting qualified women candidates for every level of office. And let’s leap ahead by encouraging the diverse leaders in our communities to become the public servants we seek. We can repurpose the bricks of the imagination barrier and build a bench of activists and advocates, ready to lead us forward.

As in Winthrop’s era, the eyes of all people are upon us. It’s up to us to cement this election’s progress and illustrate the inclusion and equity that our nation needs.

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Barbara Lee is the president and founder of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.