‘Original old boys club’ on its way out

Boston mayor's race already making history

DESPITE ITS NATIONAL REPUTATION as a white, sports-obsessed, year-round iced Dunkin’ swilling city, it has been two decades since Boston officially became a majority minority city. Women make up 52 percent of Boston’s population, and 55 percent of Bostonians are people of color. And yet, Boston’s record of exclusively white male mayors has remained, like a relic of ancient history.

The most recent mayoral race was a face-off between two white men—with only one woman, a woman of color, Charlotte Golar Richie, in the preliminary contest. What this means for the city is a long history of executive leadership that  has not been representative of the communities it serves.

That trend is finally changing. When Mayor Marty Walsh is confirmed as secretary of labor in the Biden administration, City Council President Kim Janey will become acting mayor, and make history as the first woman, the first person of color, and the first black woman mayor. The field in the race for the full-term of Walsh’s seat is unprecedented in its diversity, as the first three contenders in the race—City Councilors Andrea Campbell, Annissa Essaibi George, and Michelle Wu—are women of color.

As Boston city councilors, these women have each already made significant progress in a city with a political scene that Barbara Lee, my boss and founder and president of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, calls the “original old boys club” for its insular and homogenous history. Their candidacies are historic in their own right: Boston has never had three women at once in the race for Mayor. Campbell, Essaibi George, and Wu (and possibly Janey) are part of the next wave in a post-Women’s March sea change that includes a higher number of women elected to Boston City Council each year; Ruthanne Fuller elected the first woman mayor of Newton in 2018; Yvonne Spicer elected the first-ever mayor of Framingham in 2017; and the 2018 election of Ayanna Pressley, Massachusetts’s first black congresswoman.

As executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, where we seek to increase women’s representation, I believe Janey’s leadership, and the visibility of Campbell, Essaibi George, and Wu’s campaigns will continue to challenge long-held stereotypes about what the mayor of Boston looks like. They will chip away at the “imagination barrier”— the result of centuries of our most visible leadership slots being held by white men—which hinders voters from perceiving women as executives. It will certainly inspire other women and girls who will finally see a reflection of themselves in Boston’s top seat of power.

This progress across the country and here in Boston isn’t the only sign that the tide is turning. In our latest Barbara Lee Family Foundation nonpartisan research, a majority of voters agreed that women running for office face sexism on the campaign trail. And voters broadly support women in calling it out. That acknowledgement marks two significant shifts. It reveals that voters now see sexism in politics as a problem for everyone, not a weakness for women, and it challenges the conventional wisdom that women should stay silent in response to sexism.

That said, our research shows that some challenges persist. For one, women in politics, and especially women of color, are held to a different and higher standard than their male counterparts. For years, we have found that voters assume men are qualified while women have to prove their qualifications over and over again. Women candidates also face an impossible double standard of needing to appear strong enough to be CEO of their city or state, but not so tough as to jeopardize their likability by straying from traditional feminine norms.

On the flip side, we know that women in politics have the opportunity to draw on the entirety of their  life experiences, what we call a “360-degree leader” who can be herself and connect authentically with communities. Recently, instead of trying to fit into an outdated template built for men, women are showing up as their authentic selves—and that resonates with voters.

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Ultimately, the next Boston mayor will chart a course of unique leadership, regardless of gender. And each woman in the mix to hold the seat is singular in her background, priorities, and vision for the city. While they may face sexism on the campaign trail, voters say it will present a leadership test she can pass with a calm, authentic, and professional response. As the Walsh transition draws near, and the race heats up, it is worth pausing to recognize the enormous progress being made towards parity and a representative government for the first time in Boston’s long history.

Amanda Hunter is executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation