Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Boston City Council makes history with the election of six women

Lydia Edwards during a 2015 hearing at the Attorney General’s office in Boston.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
Lydia Edwards during a 2015 hearing at the Attorney General’s office in Boston.

What happened?

Six women won election to the Boston City Council — making history and stirring optimism that a legislative body not known for its relevance or diversity can finally propel women to real power in this city.

“A game changer,” said Maura Hennigan, who served on the council from 1982 until she ran for mayor in 2005 — and was crushed by Mayor Thomas Menino, who snared 68 percent of the vote.

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“They must be doing a happy dance,” said Peggy Davis-Mullen, who served on the council from 1991 to 2001 — when she ran for mayor and was crushed even harder by Menino, who walked away with 76 percent of the vote. “It gives you hope,” she added.

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For Boston, just having a critical mass of six female councilors represents a dramatic sea change. “When I was on the city council, diversity was having John Sears, a Republican. Everyone else was Irish and Italian,” said Larry DiCara, a lawyer and veteran Boston political observer, who was first elected to the council in 1972 and served until 1981.

While that might seem like ancient history — up until November 2013, only 10 women had ever served on a council created by city charter back in 1909, according to the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at UMass Boston. And until Tuesday’s election results, the highest number of women serving on it at one time was four.

But those statistics changed on Tuesday, when East Boston attorney Lydia Edwards beat Stephen Passacantilli for a district council seat that includes the North End and Charlestown, and Kim Janey won election to the district council seat held by Tito Jackson, the district city councilor from Roxbury who waged a losing campaign against Mayor Martin J. Walsh.

11/04/2017 Boston Ma - Kim Janey (cq) is running for District 7 City Council seat. She was door knocking in Roxbury. Jonathan Wiggs\Globe Staff Reporter:Topic.
Jonathan Wiggs\Globe Staff
Kim Janey campaigning door-to-door in Roxbury.

Incumbency has its limits. The mayor put his clout behind Passacantilli, but couldn’t stop Edwards, who, with Janey, now joins four female incumbent councilors: council president Michelle Wu, Ayanna Pressley, Annissa Essaibi-George, and Andrea Campbell.

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If the number of women to be sworn in is a big deal, so is their ethnic background. “Boston made history electing six women of color to the Boston City Council,” exulted Colette Phillips, a politically active woman of color, who runs a Boston public relations and communications firm.

This new council represents a big step forward for Boston. But it’s way too soon to tell if any one of the women elected to it can truly write a new chapter in Boston politics. Wu, who topped the ticket, has been talked about as a possible mayoral candidate since she became the first Asian-American woman on the council in 2013. So has Pressley, who in 2009 won a council seat as the first woman of color.

Hennigan and Davis-Mullen believe that a mayoral run shouldn’t be an immediate focus. But it’s definitely something for these and other Boston female politicians to think about. “People are open to challenging the establishment,” said Hennigan. “When you have new, young leaders coming in like these are, of course there will be opportunities to step to the plate, and run for mayor, governor, Congress, and the Senate.”

“Could there be a woman mayor in the future? I hope so,” said Davis-Mullen.

So, what happened? Finally, the city’s political leaders are starting to look like the people they represent. Finally, Boston voters are starting to rock the status quo. Donald Trump’s election changed the equation for who can run for office, and his presidency is pushing voters to think out of the box.

What happens next? The face of power in this city has been slow to change. Maybe this will be a tipping point. Of course, some men hope it’s not.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.