On Thursday, Arline Isaacson witnessed something she once never thought she would see.
“Who would have thunk that in our lifetimes, we’d see a very out and proud lesbian elected governor,” said Isaacson, a prominent activist and lobbyist who led the fight for gay marriage on Beacon Hill. “Thirty years ago, did we think it? No.”
As Maura Healey placed her hand on a family Bible originally owned by her great-great-grandmother, history was made in front of the hundreds packed into the State House and countless others watching at home.
A momentous mood surrounded the inauguration of Healey, who not only became the state’s first openly gay governor but also its first elected female governor and part of one of the country’s first female governor-lieutenant governor duos. There were nods to the number of female officeholders on the dais and mentions of the groundbreaking day. Later, at a basketball-themed inaugural bash at TD Garden, women, many with their daughters in tow, reflected on the milestone.
“This is a state where we will never relinquish the right to reproductive freedom,” Healey said in her speech from the State House rostrum, wearing white, the color of the women’s suffrage movement. “Where we prize and protect human rights. And civil rights. And gay rights. And equality. And democracy.”
When Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll addressed Healey as “Madam Governor” in her address, the former Salem mayor smiled.
“I really like the sound of that,” she said.
Healey joins 12 other women serving as governors in 2023, a record high according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Only 45 women in 31 states have served in the post in history and of them, three replaced their husbands and 11 became governor by constitutional succession, including Massachusetts’ Jane Swift, who replaced Paul Cellucci in 2001 when he was appointed US ambassador to Canada.
But in a state long dominated by male politicians, Healey’s inauguration represents more than just a barrier-breaking election or a symbol of progress. Seeing women like Healey and Driscoll assume power helps to chip away at longstanding beliefs and helps voters reimagine what an executive officeholder looks like, said Amanda Hunter, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation in Cambridge, which works to increase women’s representation in politics.
In a study last year, the foundation asked respondents to picture what a governor might look like; a majority pictured a man.
“There are kids who are never going to doubt that a woman can lead a state or maybe even lead a country someday, and that’s when I think we’ll see a real shift in voter perception,” Hunter said.
“[Healey and Driscoll] are presenting a different picture to our state of what a governor and lieutenant governor look like,” Hunter said. “My boss calls this a virtuous cycle in which representation can bring about more representation.”
Healey also is making a splash as the nation’s first lesbian governor (Oregon’s Tina Kotek will be sworn in Jan. 9), bringing a new dimension of representation to Beacon Hill. More than 7 percent of the country’s population identifies as LGBTQ, compared to just 0.2 percent of elected officials.
“We were founded as a country where only property-owning white men were allowed to do this kind work,” said freshman Representative Samantha Montaño, the only out LGBTQ person of color in the State House. Healey’s inauguration, they said, feels “really exciting and hopeful.”
Healey made history eight years ago when she became the first LGBTQ attorney general in the country, and has since spoken out against legislation targeting LGBTQ people in other states, challenged federal rollbacks of discrimination protections in health care, and opposed Trump administration policies that targeted transgender people.
She pushed for the recognition of gender-neutral options on state and federal identification, and led the first successful challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, arguing before a federal appeals court in Boston that the law, which denied benefits to same-sex couples, was discriminatory. The Supreme Court overturned the law in 2013.
After the DOMA win in Boston, Healey suddenly became a very public figure in the gay community. But even in deep blue Massachusetts, it was not that long ago that the LGTBQ community was less accepted.
When Barney Frank, the first congressman to voluntarily come out as gay, served as a state legislator in the 1970s, he stayed in the closet due to the “very powerful myth” Democrats and Republicans alike believed that LGTBQ people were undesirable.
He eventually created a plan to come out to friends and relatives, but then the congressional seat opened up and he decided to run for higher office.
“I shut the door again to the closet,” he told the Globe in a recent interview. “There was no way I could have gotten elected to Congress if I was openly gay.”
With the election of Healey, he said, Massachusetts has turned a new corner.
“There was only a first time once,” he said.
State Representative Sarah K. Peake had a similar story to Frank’s. In 1980 she came out to her mother, who told her that being gay would prevent her from ever holding elected office. That message made Thursday all the more meaningful, she said.
“That was a message in 1980 that I had to overcome to hold a seat in the Legislature,” said the Provincetown Democrat, who has served in the House since 2007. “So to be in the House Chamber today, and watch the first woman be elected to be sworn in as governor of Massachusetts, the first gay person being sworn in as governor of Massachusetts, I couldn’t help but think about . . . the weight of the moment and how important this is.”
There is still work to be done, advocates say.
Victory Fund CEO and former Houston mayor Annise Parker said she’s been an activist since the 1970s and has never seen the kind of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric that has popped up in recent years around the country.
In the last legislative session, states around the country proposed or passed over 300 anti-LGBTQ laws, said Imani Rupert-Gordon, executive director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
Healey, Rupert-Gordon said, “understands what she’s doing, what she’s getting into,” Parker said. “[LGBTQ leaders] provide another face and voice to our community . . . LGBTQ kids out there want someone to look up to.”
At the celebration at TD Garden, thousands of attendees filled the stands, floor, and private suites, indulging in hors d’oeuvres and shooting basketballs into arcade-style hoops. They wore Healey campaign T-shirts (and some Brandi Carlile merchandise in honor of the headlining act).
“She’s the first openly gay governor, and that’s really good for LGBTQ rights,” said 12-year-old Vera Drummond, who wore a T-shirt with a rainbow emblazoned on the front.
Her mother, Elena Spencer, looked on.
“We’re just really proud to live in Massachusetts,” said Spencer, who lives in Hudson. “It’s a place where you have all the rights and you have all the role models.
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.