Editorial: Government needs more women

  • Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks after accepting the Trailblazer Award during the LGBT Community Center Dinner at Cipriani Wall Street on April 20, in New York.  AP FILE PHOTO

Friday, May 19, 2017

Massachusetts, regarded as a bastion of progressive thinking, has never elected a woman governor.

Yes, Lt. Gov. Jane Swift filled that seat from April 2001 through 2002 when Republican Gov. Paul Cellucci left to become ambassador to China before his term was up. Though she took some missteps, her party unceremoniously dumped the experienced politician in 2002 in favor of government neophyte Mitt Romney. Geared up to run, Swift dropped out to avoid a primary race she knew she would lose.

In this lopsidedly Democratic state, Romney, who had never held political office, went on to beat Democrat Shannon O’Brien, a woman with an extensive government resume.

It took until 2012 for the state to elect a woman to the U.S. Senate — Democrat Elizabeth Warren. Only five women from Massachusetts have served in the U.S. House of Representatives.

It wasn’t until 1987 that a woman was elected to statewide office in Massachusetts — Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy.

Since the Massachusetts Legislature was created, 20,000 men have served compared to 196 women. Today just 26 percent of the state’s lawmakers are women.

These are shameful, embarrassing statistics.

But Massachusetts isn’t alone. There are only five women governors nationwide. The all-time total is 41. The largest number of women governors serving simultaneously is nine. Twenty-three states have never had a woman at the helm, including New York, Pennsylvania and California.

There are just 21 women in the U.S. Senate and 83 out of 535 members in the House of Representatives.

O’Brien, who grew up in Easthampton, in a family entrenched in statewide politics for four generations, says women aren’t regarded as top-level government leaders.

“For a couple of hundred years we have had men in these seats and so there is greater comfort for men in politics,” she said in a recent interview with the Boston University Statehouse Program. Aside from her political differences with Romney, O’Brien noted that her image was starkly different from Romney’s, which did not play well with voters.

“When I ran against Romney, I’m 5-foot-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.”

We just have to look at Hillary Clinton’s experience in the presidential campaign to see the most recent example of the impact of image on voters. Donald Trump repeatedly said that Clinton “doesn’t look presidential” and “doesn’t have the stamina” to run the country.

It was clear what he meant: Despite the fact that Clinton was far more qualified than Trump for the presidency, she is not a man. How often she smiled and the tone of her voice became factors for commentators evaluating her candidacy. Her wardrobe was fair game, too. Men don’t have to deal with these absurdities.

Clinton’s loss gave a boost to Emerge Massachusetts, a nonprofit organization in Boston focusing on recruiting and training Democratic women to run for office. After the election the group saw a large increase in the number of people seeking its services. Over 200 women indicated interest, 115 applied and 84 were interviewed, twice as many as last year.

Emerge has trained 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. But shouldn’t there be more after 12 years?

Emerge describes the “double bind” for women that does not apply to men. Not only must voters see women as extremely qualified, but also likable — that elusive term. Emerge goes on to say that despite success in getting elected to positions in their own communities, women generally don’t have the same confidence as men do in seeking higher office because women, too, don’t see themselves as presidents, or governors or senators.

It’s an issue that we as a society must continue to work hard to change. So far, the pace of that change has been glacial.

We need more women to bring their talent, experience and perspective to the highest levels of government. We hope that Emerge (and other groups, including ones that promote Republican women) will be able to capitalize on the recent surge in its recruits to change the face of leadership in the state — and ultimately the country.