Women take aim at Beacon Hill, but parity with men still looks out of reach
WEYMOUTH — Campaigning door to door, Dr. Katie McBrine carries a stack of Post-It notes resembling a prescription pad to jot messages for voters who aren’t home. “A prescription for change,” each note proclaims above her state Senate campaign logo, a heart-shaped stethoscope.
Male campaign consultants have strongly advised her to drop this image for something more traditional. Why not a blue background with white letters? She ignores them.
“It tells a story and pretty much tells exactly who I am,” said McBrine, a pediatrician and Hingham mother of two.
McBrine is part of a wave of women challenging the status quo in an election cycle many view as reminiscent of the 1992 Year of the Woman. But in Massachusetts, women are not likely to reach political parity anytime soon, even with 81 female candidates on the ballot for the Legislature. They currently occupy less than a quarter of House and Senate seats — down from their record high of 26 percent, first reached in 1999, and not matched since 2009.
With several women competing for the same seat, and others vacating their seats for other political races, female gains in the Massachusetts Legislature are likely to be modest this year.
Even in the rosiest and most unlikely of November scenarios, female candidates could claim only 16 of 40 seats in the state Senate and 61 of 160 in the House — boosting representation to 39 percent of the Legislature. More likely, since 20 of the women on the ballot this November are challenging incumbents, is a modest pickup that would boost representation to about 30 percent.
“Massachusetts is pathetic when it comes to electing women,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic analyst and strategist. “We’re still down there with, like, Georgia.”
Beacon Hill is more male-dominated than many other state capitals. According to an analysis by the Center for American Women and Politics, Massachusetts ranks 29th for its proportion of women in the Legislature, behind all the other New England states, as well as Idaho, Montana, Kansas, and Georgia.
Massachusetts’ progressive politics are threaded with a strong streak of traditionalism, said Erin O’Brien, associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston. And, she noted, the state is dominated by a single party, the Democrats, who have not had to do a lot of self-examination. Political parties tend to expand to bring in new constituencies only when they’re threatened by the other party, O’Brien said.
“Their candidate recruitment has been the good-old-boy network,” said O’Brien, who called the system “classically Boston,” relying on connections from Boston College High School or Boston neighborhoods.
“There’s a bunch of guys who are just friends,” she said. “They’re not necessarily being jerks or anything. They’re just in the same network. But that’s how institutional sexism continues.”
Witness the way the establishment stood by its man, 10-term incumbent congressman Mike Capuano, when he faced a challenge from Ayanna Pressley. The first black woman elected to Boston’s City Council was viewed as an upstart who was out of her league. Former congressman Barney Frank called her insurgent challenge “politics at its most egotistical,” and she claimed the backing of only a few leading Democrats, such as Attorney General Maura Healey and City Councilor Michelle Wu.
Ultimately, she not only “beat the machine” in the Democratic primary, O’Brien noted. “She trounced the machine.”
Pressley, who is unopposed in the general election, is now poised to become the first woman of color Massachusetts sends to Congress. If fellow Democrat Lori Trahan prevails in her race in the Third District, the state could hit a record for the number of women in the 11-member delegation at one time: four.
Despite the slow progress in increasing their overall numbers, women running for office this season say they have been encouraged by the response of voters.
“We’re finding a tremendous amount of engagement from other women on the trail — and also men who are advocates,” said Becca Rausch, 39, of Needham Heights, an attorney and mother of two who is challenging Wrentham Republican Richard Ross for the Senate seat he has held since Scott Brown ascended to the US Senate in 2010. “We hear from voters that they are very concerned about their ability to continue to exercise reproductive freedom and choice.”
Rausch has emphasized Ross’s cosponsorship of a bill that would have imposed a 24-hour waiting period for abortions. She has also proven to be a prodigious fund-raiser, dramatically outraising the incumbent before the primary and knocking on over 1,000 doors.
Both Rausch and McBrine received campaign training through EMERGE Massachusetts, a candidate school for women that has seen a surge of applicants since 2016. (McBrine’s classmates included Rachael Rollins, now the Democratic nominee for Suffolk district attorney, and Liz Miranda, who beat three men in the primary race for a House seat in Boston.)
Some of the female candidates running for the Legislature have been leaders of the resistance that rose up after President Trump’s inauguration. Tami Gouveia, a lead organizer for the Massachusetts chapter of the Women’s March on Washington, and Lindsay Sabadosa, director of the Pioneer Valley Women’s March, are both Democratic nominees for open House seats, facing no Republican challengers. (Gouveia has a Green Party opponent.)
On Beacon Hill, some conservative male incumbents are being directly targeted for their records on women’s rights.
Senator Dean Tran, a Republican who opposed a Planned Parenthood location in Fitchburg as a city councilor, is facing a second challenge from Susan Chalifoux Zephir, whom he beat in a special election, turning the district red last year.
And in an Andover swing district, endorsees from Emily’s List to former president Obama are backing newcomer Tram Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who works as a legal aid attorney, in her race against incumbent Representative James J. Lyons Jr., who unsuccessfully pushed a ballot campaign to block state funding for abortion.
The Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund has invested heavily in the race and mobilized volunteers to try to unseat Lyons.
Republican women are also trying to make inroads — including Julie Hall, a 30-year Air Force veteran who rose to the rank of colonel as a single mother. Twice elected to the Attleboro City Council, Hall narrowly lost a special election to Representative Jim Hawkins, whom she’s now challenging again. Hall, 60, describes herself as a fiscal conservative and social moderate, and someone who wants to keep serving.
“I wanted to serve. I think having a regular job was nice but it wasn’t fulfilling me in the manner that I got fulfilled in the military,’’ she said. “I get excitement when somebody gives me a challenge. . . . I’m good at getting things done.”
McBrine, too, casts herself as a problem-solver, rather than a revolutionary, as she takes on Senator Patrick O’Connor, a Weymouth Republican serving his first term in the Senate after succeeding his former boss, Senator Robert Hedlund. McBrine, who was endorsed by Obama, highlights her experience fielding families’ concerns as a pediatrician.
“My experience is that I listen to people on a daily basis and I solve their problems,” McBrine said. “I take scientific evidence and I listen to you and we come up with the best course of action in order to help you. I think that’s a skill set that would be really helpful in our State House.”