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2011 Bostonian of the Year Runners-Up

Ayanna Pressley speaks out for girls

She topped the City Council ticket in a year that saw her talking about sexual assault.

Photograph by Mitch Weiss

NOBODY EXPECTED HER to top the ticket. In fact, going into November’s Boston City Council election, some thought Ayanna Pressley was a goner – headed out of her concrete-walled office on the fifth floor of City Hall just two years after becoming the first African-American woman ever to serve on the council. She’d read the dire prognostications but didn’t believe them, certain her ground game was better than her critics believed. Still, even Pressley was amazed to learn she’d finished first on election night.

The win capped a remarkable year for the 37-year-old, born in Cincinnati, raised in Chicago, but freighted with decades of Boston history, whether she liked it or not (“I came here to make a difference, not to make history,” she often says).

 In March, she sparked a civic dialogue on the epidemic of sexual assault by standing up at a City Council hearing and relating details of her own rape when she was a student at Boston University. Since she was first elected in 2009, Pressley had worked hard on issues affecting women and girls, speaking loudly and often about the need for girls – especially poorer ones – to reach their potential, to find and finish decent educations, to avoid teen pregnancy, to feel safe. She had long been open about the fact that she’d survived sexual abuse as a child and sexual assault as an adult. But at the meeting, she’d surprised herself by sharing more details than before.

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Suddenly, Pressley became the story. She heard from grateful survivors. And some critics accused her of telling of the rape for political gain. “I wanted to tell it because I knew it would illuminate the experiences of other women,” she says. “I never thought I had the monopoly on struggle or suffering.”

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There was little time to dwell on any of this. Pressley’s beloved mother was suddenly very ill, the leukemia with which she’d been diagnosed nine years earlier coming back to stay. For seven weeks, Pressley spent every day by her mother’s bedside at Brigham and Women’s. Sandra Pressley died July 1. “She was my whole world,” Ayanna Pressley says. But this was an election year. “If I rolled up in the fetal position I would be dishonoring her,” Pressley says. “Anyone who would think I would have wavered didn’t know my mother and doesn’t know the child she raised.”

By now, a narrative had formed around Pressley: With former mayoral candidate Michael Flaherty trying to get back onto the council, she was underfunded and in big trouble, and the Boston City Council was in danger of becoming 100 percent male. Whether she was comfortable with that characterization or not, pundits and city bigs rallied to her aid. She and her supporters worked hard, knocking on thousands of doors. Going into election night, she felt good – but not ticket-topping good.

Does her victory mark a new day in Boston? The very question makes Pressley uncomfortable. “I understand and appreciate and respect that any time a barrier is broken or history is made, people want to celebrate it and mark it as progress,” she says. “[But] I didn’t sit down with my team  . . .  and say, ‘OK, let’s make sure we’re doing everything possible so we can become a symbol of Boston’s progress.’ ”

Her ambitions are much larger than that.