Shift to women on Boston City Council is astounding

Lots of lessons can be learned from electoral victories

THERE’S BEEN MUCH BUZZ around Boston since last week’s election which resulted in the historic victories of two additional women of color to the Boston City Council. Councilors-elect Lydia Edwards and Kim Janey will join four incumbent women of color councilors in January, marking the first time in the city’s history that nearly half (48 percent) of the council will be comprised of women. The makeup of the City Council will now reflect the increasingly diverse composition of the city’s residents. History has indeed been made.

What does this watershed moment tell us about the journeys of women to the Boston City Council?

Given research on women’s political leadership by UMass Boston’s Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy, we know just how hard it has been for women – and particularly for women from underrepresented communities – to achieve elective office. We have documented the challenges facing female candidates and the barriers that have kept women from running in the first place.

In 2005, the center released its report on women’s experiences in Boston politics from the early part of the 20th century through 2004. The report, “As Tough As It Gets”: Women in Boston Politics, 1921-2004,” detailed some of the key obstacles that once served to derail women’s attempts to secure a council seat: the low number of female candidates, particularly those running first-time campaigns; high incumbency rates;  the strong “gatekeeping” role of the executive branch of municipal government and the influence of mayors in council campaigns; fundraising and resource challenges; and the preference of Boston women – especially women of color– to seek a state legislative seat rather than one on the Boston City Council.

Many of the factors that made it nearly impossible for women to gain a foothold in Boston’s political power structure have been met head-on by strong grassroots campaigns and a progressive policy agenda that speaks to many city residents struggling for economic security. Since Councilor-At-Large Ayanna Pressley’s breakthrough victory in 2009 – making her the very first woman of color elected to the City Council – we’ve seen other women of color stepping forward as candidates despite the odds and running formidable campaigns.

The victorious female council candidates have both successfully challenged incumbents and sought open seats. Many have fundraised as well as – if not better than – their male counterparts. They have gained the support of a range of constituencies and communities, demonstrated grit and a strong work ethic on the campaign trail, and raised up the voices of residents in communities of color. They have advanced in a time of changed demographics in the city’s population and when a candidate’s last name and family legacy no longer have the currency they once did. Many started their campaigns with a track record of significant community involvement, advocacy work, and policy wins. And we know that their campaigns were buoyed by the concerns of women, among others, about the state of affairs at the federal level and the dismantling of hard-earned rights.

These women have shown that there are multiple pathways to political leadership – a finding explored in the center’s 2015 publication, Profiles in Leadership: Women of Color Elected to Office in Massachusetts. This first-ever guide to the 94 women of color elected to local, county, and state legislative offices provides examples of pioneering individuals who overcame challenges and made valuable contributions as policy makers. We know that this number is now well over 100. Yet, while progress has been made, women of diverse backgrounds remain sorely underrepresented at all levels of government. At present, only five women of color serve in the legislature.

With last week’s electoral victories of women of color in Boston and women across the state, there is a new sense of momentum. The speed of progress exemplified by the shift on the Boston City Council is astounding given that it was less than a decade ago that Councilor Pressley achieved her historic win.

Meet the Author

Ann Bookman

Director, UMass Boston's Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy
Meet the Author

Christa Kelleher

Research and policy director, McCormack Graduate School’s Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at UMass Boston
The question before us is how can we keep this momentum going and make further gains in building a truly inclusive democracy in Massachusetts? The answer may well lie with women who have never before dared to run for office and who will now step forward saying: “This is our time.”

Ann Bookman is the director and Christa Kelleher is research and policy director at UMass Boston’s Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies.