Massachusetts Lags In Electing Women To Office, With Few Clear Answers Why

By Mounira Al Hmoud
Boston University News Service

WASHINGTON — Outside of the presidential race, this year’s contest for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts is arguably the most watched electoral battle in the nation this year, in large part because it could determine which party controls the Senate come January.

But, closer to home, there’s also an element of Bay State political history at stake in the highly competitive match between GOP Sen. Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren.

Over the past 80 years, there are 20 states that have elected at least one woman to the U.S. Senate, according to the Congressional Research Service; at present the neighboring states of Maine and New Hampshire are each represented by two female senators. But, pending the outcome on Nov. 6, Massachusetts has yet to elect its first woman to the Senate.

Asked during a recent debate why Massachusetts has not elected a female governor or senator,  Warren said she didn’t know. During a follow-up, when asked if this troubled her, she replied, “Well, right now, I’m trying to do something about that.”

Republican Lt. Gov. Jane Swift served as Massachusetts’ acting governor from 2001-2003, but was not elected to the office in her own right. As a result, Massachusetts also has yet to elect its first female governor, putting it behind the adjacent states of New Hampshire, Vermont and Connecticut– the latter of which has elected two women as the state’s chief executive in recent decades.There don’t appear to be a lot of ready answers as to why a jurisdiction with one of the most progressive reputations in the nation (Massachusetts’ current governor, Deval Patrick, is only the third African-American to lead a state since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era) lags behind when it comes to electing women to office.

There also are mixed opinions about whether the situation is getting better, and how quickly.

State Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, who chairs that chamber’s Women’s Caucus, said the under-representation of women in state Legislature is beginning to change, albeit slowly.

“I was the 27th woman to serve in the history of the Senate in Massachusetts, which currently has 12 women serving,” said Spilka, who was first elected to that chamber a decade ago, said in an interview. “There have been 179 women elected to the Massachusetts Legislature versus over 20,000 men. That is just mind blowing when you think about it.”According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, women now hold 23.7 percent of the 7,382 state legislative seats nationwide. The percentage of women currently in the Massachusetts Legislature, 24.5 percent, is slightly above the national figure.

By comparison, neighboring Vermont, at 39 percent, currently has the second highest percentage of women legislators of any state in the nation. It’s just behind Colorado, whose Legislature is now 40 percent female.

For Massachusetts, where women represent almost 52 percent of the population, the percentage is up a bit from the 24 percent share of seats that women held in the 2011 session of the Legislature. But it is down from 2008, when 27 percent of state legislators were female, the highest percentage ever.

Some Massachusetts women think that their state has a very long way to go on such matters. One is Swanee Hunt, chairwoman of Political Parity — a group she co-chairs with former Republican Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey that held a session in conjunction with this year’s Republican National Convention in Tampa.

“If you look around, women are not the mayors of big cities as they are in Texas,” Hunt, who also heads the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said of the situation in the Bay State. “They are not in very high numbers in the state Legislature and their representation in the congressional delegation is terrible.”

Indeed, of 237 women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives since the first – Jeannette Rankin of Montana – was sent to Capitol Hill in 1916, only four have come from Massachusetts. The first was Republican Edith Nourse Rogers, elected in 1925 to succeed her late husband in a Lowell-based district.

Rogers occupied the seat until her death in 1960, and still holds the record for length of service by a woman in the U.S. House: 35 years. (Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat who spent a decade in the House before moving to the Senate, eclipsed Rogers last March to become the longest serving woman in congressional history.)

But there also was a nearly quarter century gap in which there were no women in the Massachusetts congressional delegation before Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, won a special election in 2007.

Appearing at the same forum as Hunt in Tampa in late August, Sam Bennett – a former Pennsylvania congressional candidate and president of the Women’s Campaign Fund – took an optimistic view of the political progress of women in the Bay State.

“Massachusetts is not a highly ranked state in the number of women they manage to elect themselves,” she said, “but I would argue it has one of the healthiest [among] women’s political caucuses, and the highest concentration of women leaders that understand the importance of seeing this happening.”

Statistics do indicate the number of women running for state office has been increasing in recent years. There were a total of 68 women seeking office in this year’s Massachusetts primary, six more than two years ago.

“There are 26 women running in contested state legislature [elections] this election cycle and 15 of them won in the primary,” Marissa Szabo, associate director of the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus, said in an interview. But Szabo also noted that four women are retiring from the Massachusetts Legislature this election cycle, representing a potential 2 percent drop.

According to Spilka, it has traditionally been more difficult for women to break-into elective office because of men control of career ladder, coupled with a lack of confidence and a paucity of role models.

Spilka cited state Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, who in 2007 became the first woman elected to this position in 2007, as a role model and a mentor’s. Murray’s elevation came shortly after two women in a row – Democrat Shannon O’Brien in 2002 and Healey in 2006 – captured major party nominations for governor, but failed to win the general election.

Szabo noted that, while younger women have more potential for promotion, women generally don’t start running for office until they have reached middle age and have had children. Spilka also said that women generally come into politics as a second career.

Szabo contended the main reason women don’t run for office can be traced to “media sexism,” involving such factors as the way they look or how raise their children, for instance.

“These [are] sexist stereotypes that everybody carries with them even though they don’t want to and that influence voters in the end,” she said.

Nationwide, there are 50 percent more Democratic women than Republican women in state legislatures. Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, conducted a study on this, and suggested it was because Republican women are not seen as being as tough as their male counterparts.

“Because Republican women are seen as too moderate to run in primaries, they get more conservative but still can’t make it because conservative voters are not willing to vote for them,” Walsh said.

Joanne Muti, executive director of the Massachusetts Caucus of Women Legislators, as a selectman in Walpole for two terms but opted not to run for state legislator. She said she didn’t think she could balance her political and family life.

She also cited fundraising as holding women back.

“I think balance is definitely an issue along with the ability to raise funds. Men are more comfortable making the ask,” Muti said.

She added: “Women seem to set the bar higher for themselves. Many women have experience as elected and appointed officials or community organizers at a local level before they feel confident enough to run for a statewide elected position.”

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