In the eyes of the rest of the country, Massachusetts is a bastion of progressive politics. It’s also a place that has never elected a woman to be governor and had never elected a woman to the US Senate until Elizabeth Warren’s 2012 victory.
Now, in a state long-dominated by male politicians, Massachusetts voters are poised to find a ballot that looks different than those they’ve filled out before: Female candidates are running in every statewide race and facing off against one another in four statewide primary elections.
Experts say the candidates have the opportunity to prove to voters their capacity to serve at the highest level, but also show them that women are not monolithic and that their positions and perspectives can be just as varied as what voters have long taken for granted in male candidates.
“The presence of women at this high level can shape perceptions of voters,” said Kelly Dittmar, who directs the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “The more that women and women of color challenge those biases, it provides a place to expand the notion of who or what is a leader and who can win.”
In the primary elections, Massachusetts voters will choose among female candidates in four races: the Democratic races for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general, and the Republican one for lieutenant governor.
Fifty-one percent of Massachusetts residents are female, but the state has never elected a woman to the corner office.
In 2022, only nine states had female governors and only 45 women in 31 states have served as governor in US history, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Of them, three replaced their husbands and 11 became governor by constitutional succession, including Massachusetts’ Jane Swift, who replaced Paul Cellucci when he was appointed US ambassador to Canada.
“We’re likely going to be taking a huge step forward,” said Shannon Liss-Riordan, a labor attorney running against former Boston city councilor Andrea Campbell and former state prosecutor Quentin Palfrey in the Democratic primary for attorney general.
“This is really an exciting time, having come of age fighting for women in politics,” said Liss-Riordan, a protégé of second-wave feminist icon Bella Abzug. “And for women to be respected and heard and engaged in our political system . . . It’s very exciting for me to see where we have come.”
All-female political showdowns are not new to Massachusetts, and many experts and candidates point to the 2020 Boston mayoral race as an example that broke down century-old barriers. Four women of color ran in the race, emblematic of a changing city, a theme that permeates the 2022 midterm cycle statewide.
“We are building off the success of the women who came before us, including the women who have been running and winning in Boston,” said Maura Healey, attorney general and front-runner Democratic candidate for governor, in a statement. “Young girls across Massachusetts have so many brilliant role models to look up to — and our state is stronger because of it.”
Her opponent, state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, said in a statement that she is “honored to be a part of this historic slate of candidates” that will represent a diverse swath of voters.
Simply seeing the candidates in the news, on the debate stage, and on the ballot helps move the needle when it comes to future elections, experts say.
“One of the most powerful things about seeing women on stage in the 2020 [presidential] primary or in the Boston mayoral, is that women can agree with each other on some issues and disagree on others,” said Amanda Hunter, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, where she leads efforts to increase women’s representation.
Elections like Boston’s mayoral race help to chip away at longstanding beliefs and help voters reimagine what an executive officeholder looks like, said Hunter, whose organization recently published a study on how voters behave when women run against one another in general elections. Researchers polled 2,000 likely voters across the country, including in Massachusetts, on a range of issues related to gender and elections.
“We ask respondents to picture a governor, and a majority still picture a man,” she said. “Simply seeing women competing for these positions on the debate stage, on the convention stage, it allows them to imagine it.”
The mayoral race also brought to light some of the challenges female candidates face that men don’t, Hunter said. The candidates were criticized for being divisive or angry while drawing contrasts on the campaign trail, and contentious debates were covered by news outlets in ways some said would have been different if the candidates were men.
“Although it is no longer seen as a novelty on the campaign trail, there are still challenges for women running statewide, especially women of color,” said Campbell, who also ran for mayor in 2020. “I want to see more women running so that it is the norm, so young people see themselves reflected in office. But we are not there yet.”
Republican candidate for lieutenant governor Kate Campanale said she has picked up on the way people scrutinize female candidates, calling out body language like eye rolls or a candidate looking at her watch.
“You have to be so cognizant,” she said.
For state Representative Tami L. Gouveia, who is running in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor against Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll and state Senator Eric P. Lesser, electing women means looking at major statewide priorities such as public transportation through a new lens. As a single mother, for example, Gouveia found public transit too unreliable to get her where she needed to be.
“If all women get selected, we will see politics that really start to get at the challenges that people face every day,” she said.
For Driscoll, the first woman to hold the top office in her historic coastal city, her election in 2006 showed other women who wanted to run that it was possible. She had young children at the time, which she said made her relatable.
“They were like, ‘If she could do it, I could do it,’” she said.
Amanda Orlando, a Republican strategist who is managing Geoff Diehl’s campaign for governor and Leah Allen’s campaign for lieutenant governor, said “we would be naïve not to understand that people do view men and women differently,” but said that she would like to see Massachusetts become a place where gender wasn’t part of the conversation at all.
“We look for leadership that is reflective of the electorate,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be great to get to a point where we are not paying attention to it?”