Glass ceilings don’t always remain shattered

Reflecting on the rise of women in major state transportation roles

MORE OFTEN THAN NOT, what we take for granted was not always so. In a time when it seems unremarkable that a woman is leading the Commonwealth’s Department of Transportation, it might be useful to remember that it was not very long ago when it was truly groundbreaking for governors and other political leaders to appoint women to transportation leadership positions.  I’m reflecting on this because it seems important, in the aftermath of a presidential election where the practice of so-called “identity politics” (in my view a pejorative term for inclusiveness) has been challenged, to consider how far we have come in the past several decades in making certain sectors more inclusive and, in the process of doing so, enriching policymaking in ways that are worthy of recording and remembering.  Many stories can be told in many ways, and through many perspectives, but let’s start with perhaps the most interesting and compelling one: how women changed the face and direction of the Massachusetts Port Authority 40 years ago.

The story, ironically perhaps, begins with Edward J. King, the 66th governor of Massachusetts and for many years before that, the executive director of Massport.  King was a remarkable man, a leader who took what was a sleepy little airport in the early 1960s and transformed it into what would become in a little more than a decade the world’s 8th busiest, fit for the demands of the newly arrived age of commercial jet travel.

King accomplished this transformation in part because of an inflexible determination.  He was a man of action rather than words, and sometimes his approach was insensitive to and incompatible with the quality of life of the people who lived in neighborhoods adjacent to the airport.  The battles of Maverick Street and Wood Island Park have become an important part of the story of the awakening of citizen activism in Boston in the 1960s.  Those events, and King’s inability or unwillingness to bend before gubernatorial power, set the stage for his removal in 1974.  King was our own Captain Ahab, driven by a passionate goal and uncompromising in his determination to achieve it, whose inflexible approach to building a modern airport is cannily captured by Ahab’s self-proclaimed guiding principle:  “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run.”

King was fired in late 1974, during the gubernatorial transition from Frank Sargent to Michael Dukakis.  When Dukakis and his transportation secretary, Fred Salvucci, searched for a new leader at Massport, they chose a low-profile Harvard executive: Dave Davis.  King’s executive team was entirely male (and white), reflecting the established conventions of his times.  In contrast, Dave Davis was a one-man wrecking crew when it came to shattering the glass ceiling at Massport.  At his memorial service a few years ago, his daughter described Davis as a “feminist,” a person who both understood the importance and the equity of appointing women to positions of power and leadership, and who acted on it.

Gov. Sargent first took a hammer to the glass ceiling when he appointed Ann Hershfang to the Port Authority board in 1974.  Hershfang, who became the first woman appointed to a Massachusetts authority board, was a leader in the League of Women Voters and a community activist committed to progressive mobility policies.  She was smart and soft-spoken, with a steely determination to advance causes and policies that she believed in.  It was Hershfang’s vote that tipped the scales against King and paved the way for a new leader at Massport. It was also Hershfang who, as a board member, made it her mission to ensure that new leadership introduced meaningful diversity to the ranks of Massport leadership.  Do not think for a moment that making meaningful change in the makeup of an executive team happens by chance or the simple movement of time; it takes leadership, the kind of leadership that Hershfang brought to her role as a board member.

Ann Hershfang

Ann Hershfang

One of Davis’s first appointments was, in retrospect, his most important.  He appointed Catherine Donaher to be the agency’s first chief planner, and he assigned her to lead two of the most important, pressing, and politically delicate tasks that Massport confronted in the early 1970s.  Donaher’s first major assignment was to craft, guide, and shepherd through to approval a new master plan for Logan Airport.  She and Davis faced a daunting task: they needed to assuage the concerns of the business community that was skeptical of the new Massport leadership team, and they needed to be meaningfully responsive to neighborhood residents and activists who were fed up with encroachments on community parkland and with alarmingly rapid increases in noise pollution from jet aircraft.

The 1976 Logan Master Plan was less a traditional master plan and more a policy document – a clear statement of principles that Massport would adhere to, and that even today represents the platform upon which most Massport aviation policymaking is built.  The 1976 Master Plan was groundbreaking in design and spirit.  Donaher was an indefatigable worker, spending all day at the office and many nights in long community meetings. She skillfully included community leaders and activists in the process of developing the plan, ensuring broad buy-in and support once the Massport board voted to adopt it.  In one clear and compelling document, Massport committed to move away from many of the policies that had caused unnecessary confrontation with neighboring communities, and placed the reduction of airport noise impacts to the top of the list of agency priorities.

Donaher also led an initiative to impose a nighttime curfew on flights departing or landing at Logan.  The curfew idea had merit, but it was highly controversial and viewed by many as a potential jobs killer.  Donaher undertook a difficult and thankless job that, while ultimately not successful, led to the development of creative and effective approaches to noise reduction under the leadership of another woman whose work was also groundbreaking: Claire Barrett.

Gov. Dukakis appointed Barrett (who was, like Hershfang, a League of Women Voters activist) to the MBTA board.  Davis hired her to lead Massport’s noise abatement department.  Barrett made monitoring and reduction of airport-related noise a matter of utmost importance for the authority, and she developed a noise reduction protocol that became a model for airports across the nation.  As director of Massport’s noise abatement office, Barrett navigated the delicate work of responding to legitimate community concerns about unacceptable noise levels, while also ensuring that the response would not have an unduly negative effect on aviation and growth at Logan Airport.  By collecting and using data in an unprecedented manner, Barrett’s noise abatement office enabled Massport to make informed decisions based on facts rather than conjecture or simple observation.

Many other women joined Donaher and Barrett in the ranks of Massport leadership during Davis’s long tenure, including Betsy Taylor (who was Massport budget director for many years and now sits on the MassDOT Board) and Anne Aylward (who was the first woman to manage Massport’s maritime facilities, and now serves in a leadership position as the first woman to lead the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center as its director).  In later years, state transportation executives such as Jane Garvey would go on to positions of national prominence.  These women, and many others, paved the way for a time when women would be appointed to the top leadership positions at Massport (Ginny Buckingham), the MBTA (Beverly Scott), and now MassDOT.

Over the years I have been privileged to work with a large number of talented women in the transportation sector. Following the outcome of the November election, I am taking stock of what has become the norm in my lifetime, the progress that we’ve made in many areas and the long, long road ahead to make social justice and equity, inclusiveness and diversity, action plans with measurable outcomes rather than mere rhetorical devices.

The importance of recalling the women who successfully took on transportation sector leadership positions some 40 years ago may help shake us out of a dangerous complacency, thinking that what is the norm today will still be the norm tomorrow.  It’s not that I worry that the new administration won’t select and hire women in top positions – that’s already happening. Rather, my concern is broader in scope, a concern that many in national leadership will use the rejection of what is pejoratively termed “identity politics” to turn back time and turn their backs on the unfinished business of building and maintaining a level playing field of opportunity, not just in the transportation sector but across sectors. I have no doubt that we will be learning many lessons as a consequences of this year’s presidential election unfold over the coming months and years. One lesson that is worth learning early on is this: do not assume that access to opportunity and to leadership positions, and to the diversity of perspective and experience that accompanies that, comes naturally or easily.  It didn’t, and it doesn’t.

Meet the Author

James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.