“Massachusetts has always led and it’s nice to see that it’s finally leading by electing women up and down, after 235 years,” said Democratic political strategist Mary Anne Marsh.
The surprising political gains come as women’s issues have moved to the forefront of the national debate and changed the landscape for November’s midterm elections. A surge in female voter registration in some states, along with a surprise rejection of a Republican-led effort to ban abortion in Kansas, suggests the Supreme Court’s June decision removing the constitutional right to abortion has had a galvanizing impact.
In Massachusetts, abortion rights are protected by state law and are accepted by a large number of residents, making this less important. But women’s gains in Massachusetts could be emblematic of an election cycle that has already broken national records for the number of women running for governor.
“Women are outraged and have decided to take matters into their own hands,” Marsh said. “They are going to vote in record numbers and women will vote.”
David Paleologos, director of Suffolk University’s Center for Policy Research, compared Tuesday’s primary to New Hampshire’s election a decade ago that swept Maggie Hassan into the governor’s office and a women’s congressional delegation.
“When New Hampshire finally started electing women, that was it,” Paleologos said. “This is one of those moments in time that people will remember.”
Of course, women have been scoring significant political victories for years: Take Elizabeth Warren’s come-from-behind run for Senate in 2012 or Ayanna Pressley’s 2018 midterm victory. Women Transformed City Hall of Boston in recent years, and last year Michelle Wu became the first woman elected mayor.
Yet despite its reputation as a progressive stronghold, Massachusetts had long lagged behind other states in women’s political representation. It has yet to elect a female governor — Jane Swift was elevated from lieutenant governor to acting governor after her predecessor left — and Beacon Hill remains more male-dominated than many other state capitals. The state ranks 30th in the proportion of women in the Legislature, behind all other New England states, as well as Idaho, Kansas and Georgia, among others. (The Massachusetts Legislative Women’s Caucus, which has 59 members, doesn’t expect big gains after November.)
In 2012, New Hampshire elected the nation’s first female congressional delegation, along with a female governor. Vermont, while retaining the distinction of never electing a woman to Congress, elected Madeleine Kunin governor in 1984.
“In New England, we were the only state to ever elect a woman governor,” Marsh said. “We were surrounded by states with two U.S. senators, female governors all the time, and we couldn’t manage one.”
In 2004 I took over @mwpc. She could then count on one hand the total number of women who had ever been elected statewide in Massachusetts. It’s wild (in the best possible way) to think about a Dem ticket with all these women in November. #mapoli
— Jesse Mermell (@jessemermell) September 7, 2022
Entrenched political structures have made it difficult for women to break through, especially in certain regions with longstanding political machines, said Kelly Dittmar, research director and fellow at the Center for American Women and Politics.
“We have remarkable achievements by women in all of these states, but when you dig deeper, you realize that they’ve been navigating systems that have been highly structured and controlled primarily by white men,” she said. “That’s not unique to the Northeast, that’s the whole country. But when you think about why women do better in the western states, it’s that those systems are a little less entrenched.”
“The ‘old boys’ club’ has dominated Massachusetts politics for centuries,” added Barbara Lee, president and founder of the eponymous policy office that works to increase women’s representation. “The tide has finally turned.”
Massachusetts currently has a record four women serving in statewide elected office, including Healey, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, Treasurer Deb Goldberg and Auditor Suzanne Bump.
But Tuesday’s gains were unprecedented. In addition to Healey and Driscoll as candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, Democrats chose Andrea Campbell for attorney general and Diana DiZoglio for auditor; Goldberg ran for treasurer unopposed. The only man on the Democratic ticket to survive primary night was Secretary of State William Galvin. Republicans nominated Leah Cole Allen for lieutenant governor and Rayla Campbell was unopposed for secretary of state.
Dittmar noted that in blue Massachusetts, many of the Democratic candidates are heavily favored to win. In a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll in late July, Healey had a 31-point lead over Geoff Diehl, the Republican candidate for governor.
“You could end up with an almost all-female set of elected officials statewide,” Dittmar said.
Three other states, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Ohio, also have female candidates from the same party for governor and lieutenant governor, he noted. Rhode Island’s primary, which could offer the same, is Tuesday.
Paleologos noted the political reach of the women who won Tuesday’s primary in Massachusetts.
“There is great diversification in terms of geography, race, age, pedigree. They are all different,” he said. “I think that’s very powerful.”
For former Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy, the first Massachusetts woman elected statewide in 1986, it was a sign of remarkable progress.
“We are living through a transformative election,” Murphy said. “People didn’t vote for identity politics yesterday. In fact, they were voting for the most qualified and experienced candidates. And these were women.”
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.