Former Mass. Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey Among Women Involved in Non-profit Effort to Increase Female Participation in Government
By Robert Rizzuto
It is no secret that there are fewer women than men serving in elected positions across the country, although the Massachusetts Legislature ranks slightly better than the U.S. Congress as a whole.
In the Bay State, 22 percent of state-level politicians are women, a number down five percentage points from the previous election cycle but above the rate for women serving in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, which is collectively 17 percent.
With these numbers well below what many people find as acceptable, there are several groups working to get more qualified women into public positions.
Former Massachusetts Lieutenant Gov. Kerry Healey, a Republican and the third woman to serve in that capacity in the commonwealth, is part of the movement. Serving as co-chair of Political Parity, a nonpartisan initiative to double the number of women at the highest levels of U.S. government by 2022, Healey said her journey to the organization has been one involving learning and passion.
Healey said that an invitation from Swanee Hunt, former U.S. ambassador to Austria and founding director of the Women and Public Policy Program, to attend a meeting two years ago helped set her current path.
"What I found was that leaders from the Democratic Party were engaging voters and promoting female candidates better than I'd seen on the Republican side," Healey said. "But constraints exist for all women regardless of party, and I felt the issue of supporting women to run for office is not to be addressed by one party in isolation."
"In the 2008 elections, the percentage of women in Congress went from 16 to 17 percent, which is relatively stagnant," Hyams said. "35 percent is said to be a critical mass, a number that will change the way a group thinks and acts. When women run, they win at the same rate as men. We work to address the issues which prevent women from running and encourage more women to run."
Priti Rao, the executive director of the multi-partisan Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus, said that although considering the pursuit of public office is different for each woman, there are some common themes they've identified through research.
"Where men typically see running for higher office as a career move, women tend to be motivated by their position on an issue," said Rao. "This is positive because when you are driven by something you are harder to deter, but women are also less likely to run for office then men."
Rao said research shows that women are also more hesitant to put their family and friends through a political campaign which can, and often does, include personal attacks not directly related to a candidate's ability to legislate effectively.
And once a woman gets into a political race, those attacks can carry messages not typically launched at their male counterparts, according to Rao and Hyams.
"Many women tend to be portrayed as less credible candidates with less credentials," Rao said, "and you don't see men typically being questioned like that."
Hyams said that the attacks aimed at high-profile female candidates like Republican Sarah Palin, who ran alongside Sen. John McCain in the 2008 presidential election against Barack Obama and Joe Biden, do have a chilling effect on other women considering a political run.
"Many of the things that happened to Palin affect women running everywhere," Hyams said. "But a recent study concluded that the the awful things that she went through are a deterrent to other women considering running for office."
To combat what Political Parity described as "egregious treatment of women" by the media, the group is backing the "Name It, Change It" campaign, which encourages people to log on and point out perceived sexist remarks and characterizations toward female candidates by news organizations.
Relating to the U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts, "Name It, Change It" members have noted several instances where news articles contain language they perceive as sexist toward Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren.
Despite the hurdles associated with women running for public office, there are a number of success stories in Massachusetts.
In 1987, Democratic Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy became the first woman to hold a state-wide elected position.
In 1989, Mary Hurley became Springfield's first female mayor.
Republican Jane Swift became the second female lieutenant governor in Bay State history in 1999, and two years later, she was the first woman to ever perform the duties of the governor following Gov. Paul Cellucci's departure to serve as ambassador to Canada.
In 1999, Easthampton Democrat Shannon P. O' Brien became the first female to serve as state treasurer.
In 2007, State Sen. Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, became the first female Senate President in the Massachusetts legislature. That same year, U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, won her current seat in the House of Representatives, the first Massachusetts woman to serve in such a position in 25 years.
Attorney General Martha Coakley also ascended to her statewide position in 2007, as the first female to to take the job in Massachusetts history.
Massachusetts State Sen. Gale D. Candaras, a Wilbraham Democrat, said her district's history of electing women to political office served as an inspiration when she first decided to venture into politics.
"Wilbraham's first selectwoman, Louise Voss, was like a mentor to me," Candaras said. "Until her, a woman had never served on the select board."
Candaras, a licensed lawyer with a degree from Western New England University in Springfield, said that her journey into politics began through volunteering in Wilbraham, eventually moving on to serve on the town planning board and finance committee.
From there, she pushed further and was elected to the Wilbraham Board of Selectmen prior to jumping to the state House of Representatives. Then in 2006, she ran for and won her seat in the state Senate.
And despite the several political campaigns she has endured, Candaras said that her gender has never been much of an issue. She credits that in part to all the women who ventured into politics before her.
"From my earliest days in politics, I don't remember anyone trying to make a major issue out of me being a woman," Candaras said. "In my district, there is a history of strong women being elected to office. It isn't like that across the state but here it is. One thing we all might have in common is that we are attorneys. When I was in court and stood up to argue my position, the other side never once stood up to applaud. We are used to being advocates and speaking our minds in public."