A woman’s place is in the House

Tsongas seat must be protected in redistricting

When Niki Tsongas , the Lowell-based congresswoman, testified recently before the Massachusetts Special Joint Committee on Redistricting, she caused a kerfuffle. As the only woman in an otherwise all-male and lily-white congressional delegation, Tsongas steadfastly argued that the House of Representatives seat she now holds should be retained in the current redistricting cycle partly because she is a woman.

She is right.

Massachusetts is saddled with all kinds of special interests when it comes to redistricting, and preserving a woman’s voice in the state’s Congressional delegation should be one of them, if only to give some gender-balance and the insights it brings to the business before Congress.  At the hearing in Lawrence, Tsongas was forceful in making the case, stating that she is a proxy for women statewide, representing a “community of interest” in a state that is majority women. At a more recent forum convened by the New England Council, a regional business group, Tsongas said that her voice was critical in Congress because she could “speak clearly” to the many policy concerns that impacted women not only locally, but nationally.

While women have made real strides since gaining the right to vote decades ago, they are far from registering as an equal or significant presence on Beacon Hill or in Washington. While representing just over 50 percent of the national voting population, women make up just 16 percent of congressional members. 

Massachusetts citizens have particularly ignominious record when it comes to electing women to federal office.  Its residents have never elected a female US Senator.  And at the time that Tsongas was elected to Congress in 2007, no woman had been sent to the US House of Representative in more than 25 years. 

Against the backdrop of the congresswoman’s claim to a special status is a clear retrenchment in the political presence of women in Bay State electoral politics.  While a number of firsts have occurred in recent years, including the election of a female to the presidency of the Massachusetts Senate and the election of Suzanne Bump as the state’s first female auditor, broader reversals for women in politics are evident.  According the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, female representation in elected office was reduced by 10 percent during the last round of state elections in 2010.

The notion that women speak best for other women in public policy matters has not been empirically proven.  What is appreciated anecdotally, however, is that women may be more inclined to focus on particular important policy issues. Tsongas’s successes at garnering attention to the problem of sexual assault in the military is such an example.  So is her work in the Congress regarding pay equalization between women and men, and fairness for women in health care coverage.

At the heart of all of the tension is the redistricting committee’s determination of which communities of interest are to be valued as it goes about reshaping the political boundaries of the state. Women, minorities, and any others historically disenfranchised deserve prioritized treatment by the redistricting committee.

Slow population growth in Massachusetts will necessitate the reduction of the state’s congressional delegation from 10 to nine House members. By markedly altering the district boundaries of the seat based in the Merrimack Valley, residents of the Commonwealth could lose an important voice.

Meet the Author

If the redistricting process is about assuring political equity among citizens, then ensuring that a woman’s perspective remains part of the mix is paramount. 

Kevin C. Peterson is founder and director of the New Democracy Coalition, a Boston-based organization focusing on civic literacy, civic policy, and electoral justice.