Women channel political angst into election success
Last November, Manisha Bewtra was just another frustrated voter whose notion of running for office someday took on new and sudden urgency.
Today, she’s a Melrose alderman-elect — one of the legions of women who converted political angst into action this year and vaulted into electoral offices, from school committees to mayor’s offices.
After a year of indignities, from the stinging defeat of the nation’s first female major-party presidential nominee to devastating revelations of sexual harassment by men in power, women this week made dramatic strides in municipal elections across the country.
In New Hampshire, former alderman Joyce Craig toppled a four-term incumbent, making her the first woman ever elected mayor of Manchester. Framingham voters, choosing a mayor for the first time under a new form of government, picked a black woman, Yvonne Spicer, over a twice-elected white man. In Newton, voters not only chose Ruthanne Fuller as their first female mayor, they also elected five new female candidates to the City Council, boosting women’s ranks on the council to near parity, 11 out of 25.
The surge of female candidates — often women of color — can be traced directly back to last November when the country’s “very qualified” female candidate for president won the popular vote but lost the election, said Ann Bookman, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston and director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy there.
“I think that it really was kind of a wakeup call for many women,” she said. “Many women felt that it would be very exciting to have the first woman president, and when it didn’t happen, a lot of women started saying, ‘If you look around at government, we just do not see anything close to gender parity.’ ”
The outrage sparked by Donald Trump’s election as president — just a month after he was heard on video bragging about groping women — has only intensified since his administration began limiting birth control access and the news has been full of powerful men abusing women.
“Despite all the horrible stories of sexual harassment and despite all the really ugly evidence of white supremacy, I think the response of women at the grass-roots level is, ‘This is our time. We need to get out there. We need to put forward a different view of America,’ ” said Bookman.
The theme repeated across the country Tuesday. In Seattle, two opponents vied to become the first woman to hold the mayor’s office since the 1920s; the victor was the woman who happens to be a lesbian. Charlotte, N.C., has elected black mayors and female mayors before but had not elected a black female mayor until Tuesday.
Barbara Lee, the Democratic fund-raiser whose family foundation advances women’s representation in politics, said in an e-mail that the victories across the country were a “much-needed jolt of energy.”
“2017 has seen a gigantic wave of women getting involved in politics: marching, organizing on social media, and running for office,” Lee said. “This movement is powered by women who are newly invigorated and rising up to reject the politics of hate and claim political power.”
Emerge Massachusetts, a candidate-training program for Democratic women, had 60 alumni run in the spring and fall elections. Forty-two won their races, with one race still undecided, said executive director Ryanne Olsen. The 70 percent success rate is something she can handle.
“Losing in politics is part of the electoral process,” Olsen said. “There are so many candidates who run for office, lose, pick themselves up, run again, and win.”
Take Lydia Edwards, an East Boston legal services attorney who lost her 2016 bid for a special election to the state Senate. Her sophomore effort for a district City Council seat this week launched her onto the council, past a male North End political native who happens to be an ally of the mayor.
Edwards’s victory — alongside Kim Janey, another black woman who won a district council seat based in Roxbury — will put women nearer to parity than they’ve ever been on the Boston City Council, occupying six of 13 seats.
“It’s really a sea change,” said Bookman, who noted that the first woman of color on the Boston City Council was elected just eight years ago. “Ayanna Pressley was the pioneer.”
“I think it’s really historic,” Bookman added. “The City Council is really beginning to look like the rest of the city of Boston. And I think that’s very, very exciting.”
There were losses, too.
In Everett, newcomer Stephanie Martins lost a spirited bid for City Council. In Newton, Nicole Castillo didn’t make it onto the City Council, and Amy Mah Sangiolo gave up her longtime seat in a bid for the mayor’s office.
Even the gains are measured in a field in which women are outnumbered. Women are still dramatically underrepresented in politics, not just in Congress and state houses, but even in city and town halls across the state. Of Massachusetts’ 351 cities and towns, 97 have no elected women serving the community, and many have just a smattering of female officeholders.
In Salem, where Mayor Kimberley Driscoll easily won a fourth term, nine women ran for the 11-member City Council and four won, including first-time candidates Lisa Peterson and Christine Madore. But since some were competing for the same seat, women will add just one member, boosting their ranks to four.
The Cambridge City Council doubled its female representation — from two to four — including the first Muslim woman elected to the Cambridge City Council, Sumbul Siddiqui.
Bewtra, a 37-year-old mother just elected to the Melrose Board of Aldermen, said she had to decide how much to incorporate her personal story into her political narrative.
“On the one hand, I am Indian-American, a person of color,” she said. “I didn’t want to make my messaging all about that.”
But she’s also a city planner and a member of the city’s Human Rights Commission, and it all seemed relevant.
In the end, she believes, voters rallied behind her because they felt included. “What was really rewarding was being able to engage so many people along the way,” she said.
Bewtra and fellow first-time candidate Kate Lipper-Garabedian will join three other women on the board. Still, the five will remain a minority of the town’s 11-member elected body, known as the Board of Aldermen. A recent effort to trade in “aldermen” for a gender-neutral title failed.