In Michelle Wu, Boston has elected a mayor who embodies the change we all have been talking about, one who can show the world, finally, that our city isn’t mired in the past and can be a welcoming place for all.
Don’t blow it, Boston.
We all know this city loves political takedowns. Wu is a first, and she has upset the natural order of Boston politics as the first woman, first person of color, first mother, and first millennial elected to the top post at City Hall.
Now that Wu is in office, Helen Chin Schlichte, a longtime leader in the Asian American community, is bracing for the pushback the 36-year-old Harvard-trained lawyer and former city councilor will inevitably face.
“Winning was the easy part,” said Chin Schlichte. “Helping her succeed is the hard work.”
The political honeymoon almost certainly will be short because Wu is up against a double standard that white male mayors never had to contend with. Even before she was sworn in on Tuesday, the skeptics were out in force: Her goals are too lofty. She’s too young, too inexperienced. She’ll never win over Governor Charlie Baker.
She will also be more susceptible to criticism because her ideas are bold. Those accustomed to incremental change won’t be able to wrap their heads around how such big ideas can be implemented.
“When women break barriers in politics, first they are celebrated and then they’re often criticized when the way they do their job doesn’t look the same as the men who came before them,” said Amanda Hunter, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a Cambridge nonprofit that advances women’s equality and representation in politics.
Take it from Jane Swift, the 36-year-old lieutenant governor who became Massachusetts’ first female governor after Paul Cellucci resigned in April 2001 to be US ambassador to Canada. Swift, who was pregnant with twins, faced some brutal criticism at a time when high-profile working mothers were treated as a novelty, and sometimes unkindly.
The conservative and mainstream press piled on, wondering if it was a good idea for Swift to continue working. One right-wing commentator compared her decision to “our generation’s Vietnam,” with the implication being that she was shirking her responsibility as a mother.
Wu’s unlikely to experience the working mother bias that Swift did, because these days juggling motherhood and a high-powered career is more acceptable, if not admired. Still, Swift told me she expects Wu will be scrutinized more than her male predecessors because she is “new, first, different.”
“Sometimes these folks who are saying these things don’t even realize they have this bias,” said Swift, who is president and executive director of LearnLaunch, a nonprofit serving the edtech ecosystem in New England. “It’s just their perceptions that have been formed by tradition.”
Consider the implication of what’s already bubbling to the surface: Men with big thoughts are called visionaries, while Wu with her ambitious ideas is seen as overreaching. Young male leaders are wunderkinds, yet Wu’s youth means she doesn’t know what she’s doing. All of this requires an ahem: Wu spent close to a decade as a city councilor, including a stint as president, with an impressive track record of getting things done.
Swift recalled how she benefited from a cadre of women who, behind the scenes, helped her deal with political headwinds she faced as governor. Wu, she said, should receive similar support — and the sooner, the better.
“One of the advantages for her is that we now have a lot more women leaders in the Boston and Greater Boston area to do that calling out, and they’ll start before a narrative forms,” Swift said. “That includes implicit bias that becomes very difficult to unravel after the fact.”
Geri Denterlein, who runs a Boston public relations and crisis communications firm, was among those women leaders who marshaled support for Swift. Denterlein recalled how women back then discreetly displayed their solidarity. In this era, she predicts, women will be more public about bias lobbed at Wu.
“The sisterhood has a power now that it didn’t have nearly a decade ago,” said Denterlein. “We need to use it.”
Drawing on her own experience, Indra Nooyi, who was among the first women of color to run a Fortune 500 company, said people will initially focus on Wu’s ethnicity and age, and “forget the incredible competence that she has.”
I had a chance to interview Nooyi, just days after Wu’s historic win, for an event organized by the Boston Club, a group that works to advance women leaders. Nooyi, who served as chief executive of PepsiCo from 2006 to 2018, said that when Wu faces adversity, her supporters need to remind everyone of the skills and grit that led her to the mayoralty.
In Wu, Nooyi sees somebody who could have done anything in life but chose public service. Bostonians should never take that for granted.
“Let’s just say, ‘Wow, we have an incredibly talented person who’s going to be running the city. Why not give her some tailwinds?’ ” said Nooyi. “After all, we want the city to be incredibly successful. So let’s put politics and our other labeling aside, and let’s just focus on her talent and help her get to her objectives.”
And let’s never forget, it’s not her against us. If Wu is successful, so is Boston.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.