BOSTON – Just 20 years ago, Massachusetts voters had yet to elect a woman as governor, attorney general, US senator or mayor of their largest city. This year, Democratic women won five of six statewide primary contests.
2022 is shaping up to be a watershed year for women seeking political power in Massachusetts, a state that, despite its liberal reputation, has lagged behind in electing women to higher office.
Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey is heavily favored to flip the Republican-held governor’s office in November, which would make her the state’s first woman and the first openly gay candidate elected chief executive. Andrea Campbell, the former Boston city councilwoman hoping to succeed Healey as attorney general, would be the first black woman to hold that position.
And with the candidates for governor and lieutenant governor running together in the general election, Healey is poised to make history with her running mate, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, by becoming the first ticket for governor/ two women lieutenant governors elected to lead any state.
Healey said she is more focused on issues important to voters, such as housing and transportation costs, than the groundbreaking nature of her race.
“I know it’s historic. I also know this is about the resume, though. It’s about electing the people you want in government to serve and provide the best for you and your family,” Healey said a day after his Sept. 6 primary victory.
This year, both Democrats and Republicans nominated women for lieutenant governor. In addition, Democrats nominated women for attorney general, treasurer, and auditor, while Republicans nominated a woman for secretary of the commonwealth.
The nominations continue a trend that saw Michelle Wu become Boston’s first female and first Asian American mayor elected last year.
If Healey were to win in November, she would not be the state’s first female governor, but she would be the first woman elected to the position. Republican Jane Swift, then lieutenant governor, became acting governor in 2001 when Paul Cellucci resigned to become ambassador to Canada.
Swift said having more women in office helps defuse the “gender issue.”
“I wish I had never answered another gender question, not because I wasn’t tremendously proud of my accomplishments, but because I wasn’t running because I was a woman,” she said. “I ran for office because I thought we needed lower taxes and a better small business climate and better education.”
“I can’t wait for the day when I’m not part of the conversation, when women serving in office can talk about the issues that drove them to win, not why they think differently because they have a womb,” she added.
Massachusetts has lagged behind other states in electing women. In 2012, neighboring New Hampshire, considered much less liberal, became the first state to elect an all-female congressional delegation as well as a female governor.
One reason for the recent success of female candidates in Massachusetts may be the weakening of the Massachusetts Democratic Party apparatus, said Erin O’Brien, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.
“In the past, single-party control has made it harder for women to get elected because parties only expand their candidate pools when they feel threatened, and Democrats haven’t been threatened in Massachusetts,” said O ‘Brien.
There are signs that the party’s influence may be waning. In 2014, a relatively unknown Healey took on state Sen. Warren Tolman as attorney general. Tolman had the support of the Democratic Party and a brother who was president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, but Healey easily defeated him and won the general election.
That same summer, Quentin Palfrey won the state party’s endorsement for attorney general, but dropped out of the race a week before the primary and endorsed Campbell. In the race for state auditor, Chris Dempsey won the party’s endorsement, but lost the primary to state Sen. Diana DiZoglio.
“Part of the reason women are starting to win in Massachusetts is because the Democratic Party is starting to look outside itself,” O’Brien said. “Women can run against the favorite male and win and not pay with their race if they lose.”
U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who defeated an incumbent to become the first black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts, said the rise of Democratic women is a testament to the “courage, ability and the commitment” of each candidate.
“More women are seeing themselves in public office, recognizing the critical role their experience and expertise play in policymaking, and choosing to build more inclusive and representative decision-making boards,” she said in a statement.
“When I won my first campaign for Congress in 2018, a lot of people referred to it as ‘Black Girl Magic,’ but I know it was ‘Black Woman Work,'” she added.
According to Gus Bickford, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, party bylaws prohibit him from participating in contested primaries other than endorsements at the state convention.
“Once a candidate is chosen by voters in the primary election, we get to work getting them elected,” Bickford said in a statement. “As we prepare to elect the first female governor and lieutenant governor team in Massachusetts history, along with other qualified women on the ballot, we are very proud of the role we play in supporting them.”
The shift began in part in 2006, when Martha Coakley became the first woman elected attorney general in Massachusetts. Another milestone came in 2012 when Elizabeth Warren defeated Republican Senator Scott Brown to become the state’s first woman elected to the US Senate.
Women’s representation in Massachusetts state politics dates back to 1922, when Democrat Susan Fitzgerald and Republican Sylvia Donaldson became the first women elected to the state’s House of Representatives.
In 1936, Republican Sybil Holmes became the first woman elected to the Massachusetts Senate, but it was another 70 years before Therese Murray became the first woman to serve as Senate President.
The number of women serving in the legislature has increased in recent decades.
In 1992, there were only six women serving in the 40-member Massachusetts Senate and 31 in the 160-member Massachusetts House. Thirty years later, the number of women in the Senate has more than doubled to 13, while the number of women in the House stands at 46.
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