One sunny Saturday in August, two candidates running neck-and-neck for attorney general held dueling campaign rallies in Boston with five of the biggest names in Massachusetts politics. Andrea Campbell brought out the Democratic nominee for governor, along with a member of Congress who never fails to generate buzz. Shannon Liss-Riordan delivered two Boston mayors and a US senator, whose new endorsements and progressive bona fides could be expected to galvanize an army of grass-roots supporters to her side.
If the traditional political events looked radically new, it was for this reason: Every one of those political heavy hitters was a woman. They’d all risen to prominence in recent years, often defying expectations and sometimes even bucking their party. Former Boston mayor Kim Janey, Mayor Michelle Wu, and Senator Elizabeth Warren were there backing Liss-Riordan, a prominent labor lawyer; US Representative Ayanna Pressley and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey voiced their support for Campbell, a former Boston city councilor.
Now, Healey could become the first woman elected governor in Massachusetts on a slate of Democratic statewide candidates that includes four more women: Kim Driscoll for lieutenant governor, Campbell for attorney general, state Senator Diana DiZoglio for auditor general, and incumbent Treasurer Deb Goldberg. Secretary of State William F. Galvin is the last man standing among the Democrats’ statewide nominees, and even he faces a female challenger, Rayla Campbell, one of two women on the Republican ticket, along with lieutenant governor nominee Leah Allen.
This record showing for women candidates led Barbara Lee — who heads a foundation working to increase women’s representation — to declare on the night of the primary that “the tide has finally turned.”
Massachusetts women could soon set a new bar by winning five of the six statewide constitutional offices in the first post-Roe general election, when outrage at Republican-led state abortion bans is motivating voters across the country and Democrats are counting on women to salvage their midterms.
Though women nominees aren’t expected to break any records in running for Congress as they did the last two angry cycles, this time around they could log historic gains in governor’s races across the country: 25 women are nominated to lead their states, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. And Massachusetts has the dual distinction of nominating female ticket mates to lead the state. No state has ever elected women to serve as governor and lieutenant governor at the same time; Massachusetts could be among the first in November, along with Ohio, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.
Could Massachusetts — a progressive and groundbreaking state that has been at the forefront of national movements from abolition to national health care, from gay marriage to transgender rights — finally become a leader in women’s political representation?
“People see us as a pace-setter,” says Pressley, the US representative who challenged an incumbent and all convention when she ousted fellow Democrat Mike Capuano in 2018. “They do see us as a beacon. And they don’t always appreciate that we still have to organize, mobilize, and fight for these things, even being in a ‘very progressive’ blue state.
“Yes, we are exceptional,” Pressley adds, “and there’s still work to be done.”
Because here’s the catch: Despite all the firsts and notables, despite Massachusetts’ reputation as a trailblazing state, Massachusetts has never led on women’s representation. The current share of women in the Massachusetts Legislature is still just under 30 percent, having dipped lower than the record-high logged earlier this legislative session after two cycles of notable gains.
“If anything, I think the rest of the country is surprised that Massachusetts hasn’t already elected all these women [to statewide offices],” says Erin O’Brien, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston. In the new book she co-edited, aptly titled The Politics of Massachusetts Exceptionalism: Reputation Meets Reality, O’Brien even compares Massachusetts to the Red Sox of old: perpetually at the bottom of the division. On women’s representation, Massachusetts has the worst record in New England and is a perfect average nationally.
“Massachusetts has been in the middle of the pack for electing women since the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment,” O’Brien writes. “When it comes to electing women to office, it has been consistently unexceptional.”
Twenty years ago, a woman actually was serving as governor of Massachusetts. She was unceremoniously elbowed out of contention by a man.
Jane Swift had been elected lieutenant governor but was elevated to “acting” when then-Governor Paul Cellucci stepped down. Pregnant with twins, commuting to the Berkshires where she lived with her husband and first baby, Swift found her tenure marred by scandals of a distinctly working-mom variety. Asking aides to baby-sit. Using a State Police helicopter to skirt traffic on her way home.
Viewed as a third-string successor to two Republican governors who had abandoned their posts early for ambassadorships, she had little political capital to survive the mistakes she admittedly made and was deemed incapable of keeping the seat in Republican hands. Party leaders recruited Mitt Romney, a.k.a. the “white knight” who saved the scandal-plagued Salt Lake Winter Olympics and who was remembered for his impressive but unsuccessful challenge against Senator Edward Kennedy in 1994. “It was reflective of the era,” O’Brien says. “It’s the old-school bully guy move.”
In hindsight, Swift, who went on to work for a venture fund, places her experience in a new frame. “There’s something called ‘being too early in the market,’ which can be fatal,” she tells me. “Frankly, I was just way too early to market as a pregnant politician.”
Almost two decades later, though, this much has changed: A promising male candidate couldn’t edge an incumbent woman aside without “serious blowback,” O’Brien says. “That kind of action comes with real consequences now.” Even if a party wanted to back such a move, the political calculus is that “the risk-reward isn’t worth it.”
Take last year’s race for Boston mayor, which drew five candidates of color, only one of them male (John Barros, the city’s former chief of economic development). In the not-too-distant-past, a white man would have jumped into that field, sensing he had a lane. Conventional wisdom long held that the presence of two women or candidates of color would split their voting bases, leaving the spoils to the more traditional candidate.
But that didn’t happen in 2021 — after a racial reckoning, the #MeToo movement, and the million microaggressions of the Trump era. Boston voters would not have taken kindly to that guy muscling into an already full lane, O’Brien suggests. “The Democratic Party, voters would have said to him, what are you offering here?” O’Brien says. “They would have paid with their constituencies.”
Likewise, in this year’s race for governor, Healey came into the ring as such a front-runner that one man and two women gave up challenging her before the primary. That’s also a change for Massachusetts statewide races, O’Brien says; Previously, women “haven’t been able to clear the field.”
That is not to suggest men are going to routinely hold the door for their women competitors. When Jesse Mermell, a former head of the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus, ran in the Democratic primary for the Congressional Fourth District in 2020, she faced three other women and five men; Jake Auchincloss prevailed. But Mermell believes Massachusetts has moved past the notion that “voters can only handle one woman in the race at a time.”
The 2021 Boston mayor’s race — which pitted four female city councilors of color against one another — vividly illustrates that. Each candidate had made a unique name for herself and built a constituency in Boston. None had held office 10 years earlier.
“I view Massachusetts nationally as very important because it’s also a great case study of the Boston City Council — how that was transformed over so many election cycles to create a majority-woman City Council that’s also diverse,” says A’shanti Gholar, president of Emerge, a national organization that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office.
It was only in 2009 that Ayanna Pressley — now frequently in the national spotlight — became the first woman of color elected to the Boston City Council. Within 10 years, women of color had claimed a majority of the 13-member council, and voters sent Pressley to Congress. The hits kept coming: Janey served as the first woman mayor in an acting capacity before Wu won the seat outright, and former Boston city councilor Lydia Edwards was elected to the state Senate.
Now, Campbell could become the first Black woman elected to statewide office in Massachusetts. Wu, Edwards, and Campbell — along with a majority of Boston city councilors and DiZoglio on the statewide ballot — are all Emerge alumnae. “It’s not surprising for me to see this go from City Council to the statewide level. That’s what happens when you build the bench,” Gholar says.
Interest in candidate training programs such as Emerge surged after Donald Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016. Likewise, Emerge has seen interest soar since the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe this past June, with applications about 2.5 times higher since then.
Gholar — and other boosters like her — see recent lessons coming out of Boston for women in politics everywhere. “If we really want to say, ‘Hey, who has provided a great road map for how to break up the old boys’ club and build a new girls’ network,” she says, “it absolutely is Massachusetts.”
Inside Planned Parenthood in Boston, Pressley was having a “full-circle” moment, as she reflected on how far women in Boston had come. As a city councilor, she had championed sex education in the Boston Public Schools. Now, she’s the chair of the Pro-Choice Caucus’ Abortion Rights and Access Task Force in Congress, a lead sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act, and she’s representing a state that has the academic and medical chops, the political will, and the hub-of-the-universe chutzpah to try to be a national leader on reproductive health.
“While we continue to fight for our basic human rights to be codified, I am proud that Massachusetts has not conceded our ability to lead,” Pressley told about 40 researchers, educators, and advocates gathered Oct. 4 for the formal launch of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts’ new ASPIRE Center for Sexual and Reproductive Health. An acronym for its mission, Advancing Science and Practice through Innovations in Research and Education, the ASPIRE Center is bringing together clinicians, researchers, educators, and training programs to remove barriers to abortion and improve sexual health outcomes, not only in Massachusetts, but also in states where access to abortion has been restricted.
It wasn’t always clear that Massachusetts would emerge as a national leader on abortion rights. Just three years ago, when advocates invoked the specter of a Roe reversal, they struggled to build support in the Catholic-influenced state for a measure protecting abortion rights in state law. Lawmakers expressed particular discomfort with the Massachusetts ROE Act’s provision lowering to 16 the age at which abortion would be allowed without parental consent or a judge’s order. The bill also allowed for abortions after 24 weeks, the legal limit, in cases of fatal fetal anomalies — a feature that anti-abortion activists derided as infanticide. When the ROE Act did finally pass the Legislature, Governor Charlie Baker initially vetoed it, requiring a legislative override in December 2020 to make it happen.
Fast-forward to this past summer, when the Supreme Court’s Roe reversal was a reality. Legislative leaders did something uncharacteristic by reopening a messy debate to take an election-year vote on an incendiary issue. The new bill not only tweaked the language on fatal fetal anomalies, to cover more problem pregnancies than the original bill did, it also steered state money to abortion funds for the first time and positioned Massachusetts as a safe haven for abortion nationwide, offering in-state providers and out-of-state patients some legal safeguards from prosecution in other states banning abortion. “We passed a bill that nobody thought we were going to pass,” says state Representative Lindsay Sabadosa, a Northampton Democrat.
In the House chamber, women legislators dominated hours of debate, offering deeply personal stories about abortion, miscarriage, and childbearing that informed the conversation, highlighted the stakes, and, Sabadosa thinks, changed the narrative. “That’s an important difference — when you can get up and share life experience and that’s a very personal life experience,” she says. “And so, I think we are seeing a change.”
Some progressive agitators see the abortion votes as popularly driven political reactions in a reliable blue state, while other intractable problems go unaddressed. “Why does it take the urgent things to happen in Massachusetts for us to be bold?” asks Wilnelia Rivera, a consultant who served as senior campaign adviser to Pressley in 2018. She and others point to the Legislature’s continued squeamishness on sex education — a bill that would require schools that offer sex ed to make it medically accurate has languished for a decade — and the timid steps it has taken toward funding early education in a state with the nation’s second-most expensive child care market routinely suppressing women’s career ambitions.
Rivera raises a key question: What’s the point of having women represented if they can’t change the policies that are keeping other women down?
Still, she is celebrating the potential wins this season. The front-runner in the race for governor, Healey, is a lesbian and “it’s not even a conversation.” Enough women are running now — and winning — that they are no longer viewed as monolithic or emblematic or even, necessarily, on the same side. As this year’s competing endorsements showed, they have enough political clout that they can throw it in different directions.
They can do what the men were doing all along. “When it comes to the highest offices in our Commonwealth,” Rivera says, “women can now compete.”