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Women of color strive for firmer political foothold

From left, Charlotte Golar Richie, Linda Dorcena Forry, and Maria Jobin-Leeds at a Women’s Pipeline for Change event.Jessica Rinaldi for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

One recent evening, dozens of women gathered in the basement of a Back Bay restaurant. They were there to celebrate: More women of color are running for office this year in Massachusetts — 35 — than ever before.

But the women that evening, including the lone woman running for mayor in Boston, wanted to make clear that 35 is not nearly enough.

"We've made tremendous strides, but we're not where we should be," said Priti Rao, executive director of the Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus and a board member of the Women's Pipeline for Change. "Not even close."

Women make up about 52 percent of Massachusetts's population but only 25 percent of the state Legislature. And women of color constitute just 3 percent of the Legislature.


"And if you look at the municipal level, the numbers get worse," Rao said, adding that one-third of local elected bodies have no women members at all.

Linda Dorcena Forry and Charlotte Golar Richie were there that night in July. Dorcena Forry remembers the day she applied to be a legislative aide with Golar Richie, then a state representative. Fresh out of college, Dorcena Forry was honest when Golar Richie asked where the 21-year-old saw herself in a few years. The answer: a fashion designer.

State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry had applied, out of college, to be an aide to Charlotte Golar Richie before her ascent.Jessica Rinaldi for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

"Who says that?" Dorcena Forry asked the crowd. "She hired me anyway."

Dorcena Forry worked with Golar Richie for years, eventually entering politics in her own right and winning a seat in the state House, one of only two black women to do so during her tenure. Now, Dorcena Forry is a state senator, the first woman to occupy a seat long held by men from South Boston.

That is called moving up the political pipeline, going from aide to state representative to state senator. It is a path infrequently traveled by women of color because they are underrepresented at the ground floor — local government. Women make up only a sliver of the state's overall candidate pool. And this is where Massachusetts finds itself heading into the September primary election: the precipice of change while fighting the status quo.


Also there that night were Ava Callender, whose grandmother is Willie Mae Allen, former state representative, and Gloria Murray — both seeking Boston City Council seats that opened because their occupants are trying to ascend to mayor.

Political leadership organizations like the Women's Pipeline for Change, which hosted the July celebration, prepare women of color to run for office and encourage them to see public service as a career option. The Pipeline is a coalition of 22 women and 13 organizations dedicated to getting progressive women of color from low-income communities involved in politics and government.

Statewide, political leadership organizations, such as Emerge Massachusetts and the Asian American Women's Political Initiative, identify, train, and inspire women to pursue public office.

"Part of our work is to make the invisible visible," said Ileana Cintrón, the Pipleline's program manager. "Making the invisible visible allows us to start connecting people. Who has the knowledge? Who has worked with whom?"

Growing up, Golar Richie never met anyone who aspired to be an elected official. "And I grew up at a time when Shirley Chisholm was the congresswoman," she said during an interview before the July event.

Her eyes were opened to politics while working as a budding television journalist summarizing House of Representatives meetings for the graphics at the bottom of the television screen.


She first ran for office because of violence in her Dorchester neighborhood. Now, she's running again because, she said, the time has come to take up the challenge she's presented to so many others.

"I had given this speech so many times about women, women of color, all women, needing to get involved in politics," she said. "We work hard. We want experience. We want to give back. We want to do these things, and yet, when the opportunity arises . . . we have all kinds of reasons not to do it."

Fear. Finances. Education. Experience. Qualification. These are the things, be they real or perceived, that women of color say keeps them from running for office.

Ayanna Pressley, the first black woman elected — and reelected — to the Boston City Council, is running to keep her at-large council seat. But Pressley had to be cajoled to run when first approached, even though she had worked as an aide to Senator John F. Kerry and helped train female and minority candidates on her own time.

"I was my own cliché," she said. "I was single, unmarried, had just bought my first house, and was also the primary caretaker and caregiver of my beloved late mother who was battling a chronic illness."

Advocates say the single-largest barrier between women of color and elected office is money — both personal finances and campaign fund-raising. The earlier that candidates raise large sums of money, the more credibility they amass. But women have trouble asking for money, said Christa Kelleher, interim director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston.


"I have not met a woman in politics who has claimed that she really liked doing it," Kelleher said. "It has to be done, but it's not the most exciting part of campaigning."

Michelle Wu, a first-time candidate from the South End pursing an at-large City Council seat, called the task "very daunting." Her strategy is to make every interaction as authentic as possible. She is grateful if it gets to the point where someone wants to give money to her campaign.

"If it doesn't, I don't push," she said. "When I got my first $500 check to launch my campaign, I was almost shaking."

Suzanne Lee, a former educator from Chinatown who is challenging District 2 Councilor Bill Linehan of South Boston in an electoral rematch, said female candidates of color are forced to answer questions about their qualifications repeatedly.

"It's almost like we have to prove ourselves over and over and over again," she said. "And that impacts your ability to raise money for a credible campaign."

The financial hurdles, though, extend beyond campaign fund-raising to personal finances, which is the number one barrier that keeps progressive women of color from running for office, said Maria Jobin-Leeds, managing partner of the Partnership for Democracy and Education, which says on its website it seeks to shift political power to women and people of color from low-income communities.


Candidates essentially are forced to quit their jobs to run for office.

“But,” she said, “if you’re in a low-income community and you don’t have a great job already and none of your friends have a great job and none of your family has great jobs . . . what are you supposed to do?”

The answer for many is not to run. This election cycle she is amazed by how many women got their finances in order and their families and communities behind them.

"We are so ready for that as a city and as a country," she said.

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com.