By Shannon Golden
Boston University Statehouse Program
A version of this article was published in SouthCoast Today.
Ninety-four years have passed since the first two women were elected to office in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
Sylvia Donaldson, a Republican from Brockton, and Susan Walker Fitzgerald, a Democrat from Jamaica Plain, were pioneers in Massachusetts politics, elected just three years after women were granted the right to vote in the United States.
When Evelyn Murphy took office as lieutenant governor in 1987, the first woman to hold statewide office, women made up only 18.5 percent of the state Legislature. Today, 30 years later, that percentage has only grown slightly.
Massachusetts is known to be a progressive state especially when it comes to politics and that is why it may be surprising that the state trails many others when it comes to the women in elected office.
Shannon O’Brien, the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial nominee, believes that reflects a lot of subconscious and unspoken bias toward women in politics today.
“You don’t really think of women as politicians and leaders, but that is slowly changing,” O’Brien said. “For a couple of hundred years we have had men in these seats and so there is greater comfort for men in politics.”
While women make up about 51 percent of the Massachusetts population, only 26 percent of the Legislature is women. This ranks Massachusetts 23rd among 50 state legislatures for the proportion of women holding office, placing it behind all other New England states.
Top ranking states include Nevada at No. 1 with 39.7 percent of women in the state Legislature, Vermont in second with 39.4 percent, and Colorado ranking third with 39 percent.
The states holding up the rear include West Virginia in 48th place with only 13.4 percent of women, Oklahoma in 49th place with 12.8 percent, and Wyoming in 50th place with 11.1 percent of women.
Ryanne Olsen, the Executive Director at Emerge Massachusetts, an organization focused on recruiting and training Democratic women to run for office, explained that one of the most difficult parts about recruiting women is giving them the confidence that they are just as capable as any man.
“I think a lot of women don’t see themselves as qualified. They might be really active in their communities but don’t think they have the time or qualifications to run,” Olsen said. “We have women with extensive experience but we haven’t had a lot of great examples of women running for office.”
After the 2016 presidential election, Emerge Massachusetts saw a major increase in women looking to participate. Over 200 women indicated interest in the program, 115 women applied, and around 84 women interviewed for the program, nearly doubling last year’s numbers, according to Olsen.
Emerge has trained over 230 women since its founding in 2005, with half of them going on to run for public office. There are currently five Emerge alumnae serving at the Statehouse.
“Men can look in the mirror and say, ‘this is what a president looks like,’ women don’t have that,” Olsen said.
The Barbara Lee Family Foundation, an organization dedicated to the advances of women’s equality and representation in American politics, has researched the multiple obstacles women face when pursuing public office.
In its “Campaign Essentials” guide, the foundation explains that a major obstacle is the confidence gap. Unlike men, women often have a difficult time seeing themselves as someone tasked to hold public office.
“We know that women need to be encouraged to run for office, while men don’t wait to be asked,” Kathleen Sebelius, the former governor of Kansas once said when discussing the issue
Although this is a major reason women are not as well represented in political office, research has shown that when they do run they often win at equal rates as men.
Another barrier the foundation discusses is called that “double bind,” a type of litmus test that men do not have to pass.
Voters have to consider a woman candidate both extremely qualified and likeable before voting for her, but are willing to support a man they do not like but who they think is qualified for the job. Women are also expected to do more than men to prove they are prepared for the job.
O’Brien met that requirement by serving in the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1986 to 1993, the Massachusetts Senate from 1993 to 1995, and as the first female Massachusetts State Treasurer and Receiver General from 1999 to 2003 before running against Mitt Romney in 2002.
Unlike many other women who pursue public office, politics was in her blood. Her family was heavily involved in Massachusetts’ politics and she followed the family legacy and first ran for office shortly after graduating law school. She quickly climbed her way up the political ladder.
Nevertheless, she explained, women face some difficult barriers especially when it comes to image in higher-level offices.
“A woman has to use different skills to get elected,” O’Brien said. “On the local level women are very good at running and winning. Once you get into the higher levels a lot relies on advertising and image. The further you go in a campaign the more filtered the connection is with the voter, you become less three-dimensional and more one-dimensional.”
O’Brien explained that this is where it becomes difficult for women in a campaign, when success becomes entangled with image and how other people see the candidate.
“When I ran against Romney, I’m 5’5 and a little overweight. I don’t look like a governor and then there is Mitt Romney who looks like a central casting to play senator or president. A lot of these campaigns are looks.”
Romney who had never held elected office prior to the 2002 gubernatorial race, won 49.77 percent of the vote while O’Brien carried 44.94 percent.
“When you’re running for higher offices you can’t connect with every voter so the further away you are from people being able to see your potential, the easier it is for biases to creep in,” O’Brien said.
In 2015, a Gallup poll showed that 92 percent of respondents said they would vote for a “generally well-qualified” woman from their party for president. While extremely promising, it showed that a major reason behind the lack of women in office is the fact that women do not show up on the ballot as often as men.
Elaine Almquist, an alumna of Emerge Massachusetts is the Communications Co-Chair for the Massachusetts Democratic Party and an advocate for the participation of women in politics, explained that women tend to self-select themselves out from running for office.
“I think there are a number of different barriers that women face,” Almquist said. “Sexism is pervasive in the whole society. Young girls think they are no good at math and science, they don’t appreciate their bodies, and that doesn’t go away. We need to undo these things.”
Almquist explained that training programs like Emerge Massachusetts gives women the confidence that they can win but the real progress comes with more women getting elected and becoming role models for other women who want to enter public office.
“I think if women are half of the population we should represent ourselves in office,” Almquist said. “Our lived experiences are different than men and represent our own stories and lived experiences, especially in the realm of reproductive rights. I think it is difficult for men to understand.”
While Massachusetts still lags behind 22 other states when it comes to the representation of women in elected office, there seems to be slow progress.
Massachusetts has only seen one female governor, Jane Swift, who was lieutenant governor but elevated to acting governor in 2001 when Gov. Paul Cellucci was appointed U.S. ambassador to Canada.
Martha Coakley was elected the first woman Attorney General in 2006 and one year later Sen. Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, became the first female Senate President. In 2010, Susan Bump was elected as the first female State Auditor, and in 2013 Elizabeth Warren was sworn in as the first female U.S. Senator for Massachusetts.
During a December lecture focused on encouraging women to run for public office presented by the Center for Women in Politics and Public Office at UMass Boston, Patricia McGovern, a six-term Massachusetts state senator and the first female to chair the Senate Ways and Means Committee, discussed the need for women in political office.
“Take the risk, give it a chance. If you lose, at least you can say that I tried,” McGovern said.
“It takes courage to run; it takes courage to ask someone to vote for you. Everyone can make a difference, wherever they are. We can all be leaders in our own way everyday – push the envelope.”