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In Faneuil Hall, a call to service for a new generation of women

A panel made up of (from left) Martha Coakley, Jane Swift, Kerry Healey, Evelyn Murphy, and Shannon O’Brien spoke at the event titled “Nonpartisan Lessons Learned & Shared: For the Next Generation,” at Faneuil Hall on Thursday.
A panel made up of (from left) Martha Coakley, Jane Swift, Kerry Healey, Evelyn Murphy, and Shannon O’Brien spoke at the event titled “Nonpartisan Lessons Learned & Shared: For the Next Generation,” at Faneuil Hall on Thursday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

In Faneuil Hall, where Samuel Adams and other great male patriots met to plot the nation’s path to independence, a bipartisan panel of women who ran for statewide office in Massachusetts issued a call to service for a new generation.

Two Republicans — former lieutenant governor Kerry Healey and former governor Jane Swift — joined Democrats Martha Coakley, a former state attorney general and candidate for US senator and governor; Evelyn Murphy, the first women elected lieutenant governor in the state; and Shannon O’Brien, the first woman elected state treasurer and a gubernatorial nominee.

For more than 90 minutes, the women candidly discussed their groundbreaking candidacies, victories and defeats going back to the 1980s, when Murphy served with governor Michael S. Dukakis.


With each passing decade, more women stepped forward to reach for the state’s highest elected offices. And, despite Hillary Clinton’s defeat for president in November, they urged women not to retreat.

“No one has ever won, who didn’t run,” said Swift, 52, who served as lieutenant governor before filling the unexpired term of governor Paul Cellucci, who was appointed as the ambassador to Canada in 2001.

Swift would later give up her own run for governor, when Republican Mitt Romney announced he would run in 2002. He chose Healey, then head of the state Republican Committee, as his running mate.

Healey, now the president of Babson College, later lost her own bid for governor in 2006 to Democrat Deval Patrick.

She said women should not be afraid to lose.

“What we’re here to say to you — and I believe I can speak for all of us — is that we’re fine,” said Healey, 56, a mother of two young adults. “Don’t be worried. . . . Failure is the sinew that connects success.”

“Many of the people you think of as accomplished politicians in government have lost races,” said Coakley, 63, who was also elected Middlesex district attorney.


After one such loss, Murphy recalled a letter from a girl who wrote that she had taken her father to vote for her.

“I’m sorry you lost,” the 76-year-old Murphy said, recalling the letter from memory. “I lost my spelling bee. I’m going to win it next year, and I think you should run again and win next year.”

The anecdote drew laughter from an audience made up mostly of women.

The event was sponsored by Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s Office of Women’s Advancement. Walsh introduced the panel, which was moderated by Janet Wu, the longtime State House reporter for WCVB.

O’Brien spoke of the necessity of running a campaign built as much on logistics as passion. In one campaign, O’Brien said she brought 100 absentee ballots to a nursing home, and won that race by only 100 votes.

The panelists sat beneath an enormous painting titled “Webster Replying to Senator Hayne,” which depicts men engaging in debate on the first floor of the Senate as women looked on from a balcony.

The irony was not lost on the speakers — nor the fact that despite advances, women still have a long way to go in politics.

Swift — who made history when she gave birth to a daughter while campaigning for lieutenant governor and to twins while serving as governor — recalled chewing on lemon wedges to stave off morning sickness in between campaign events and the paralyzing fear of taking a day off.


But Swift recalled that she recently overheard a colleague arranging her schedule around a family commitment — a sure sign of progress, she said.

“Some of the biggest mistakes that I made were because I didn’t think I could call in sick to work,” said Swift, a former state senator.

Healey said women of their generation went “way far — too far” to be seen as tough as men.

Still, for all the challenges facing women in public life, there is still hope for the future — the current political climate will stir more interest from women of all ages.

“In the next 12, 18, 24 months, you’re going to see a lot more activity,” O’Brien said. “We’re at a tipping point.”

Nicole Fleming can be reached at nicole.fleming@globe.com.