Senator Elizabeth Warren, center, takes the stage joining Democratic gubernational candidate Jay Gonzalez, left, and Democratic Nominee for Massachusetts’ 7th District, Councilor Ayanna Pressley, right, during the Massachusetts Democrats Unity Rally held at the Cambridge Community Center on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018, in Cambridge. [Nicolaus Czarnecki / The Boston Herald via Associated Press]
Ayanna Pressley, Nika Elugardo, Rachael Rollins.
These are some of the women who shocked the male-dominated political scene in Massachusetts this month, winning nominations in tightly contested races for local, state and federal offices.
And while women are still a long way from achieving representative parity in Massachusetts, political groups are nonetheless celebrating what’s been identified as a growing appetite among voters to elect more women to office.
“There’s really something stirring in American politics,” said Amanda Hunter, spokeswoman for the Barbara Lee Family Foundation in Cambridge.
Prior to the primary election, 122 female candidates ran for congressional and state office, along with district attorney, according to the foundation, which advocates for women in American politics.
Once the votes were tallied, however, the number fell more than a quarter to 89 candidates, which may not sound like a lot considering they are collectively vying for more than 200 political offices across the state. But the number still exceeds totals counted during prior election cycles, which is a trend Hunter hopes will continue for years to come.
“We don’t want 2018 to be another year of the woman; we want this to be a movement that lasts many years,” Hunter said.
Change, she added, happens slowly in politics. Edith Rogers was the first woman ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Massachusetts in 1925. Since then, only a handful of women have been elected to congressional office. Sen. Elizabeth Warren became the first woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts in 2012.
Nonetheless, Pressley is used as an example of how change happens. Prior to upsetting 10-term incumbent congressman Mike Capuano to become the Democratic nominee for the 7th Congressional District, Pressley in 2009 became the first woman of color ever elected to the Boston City Council.
Since then, several other women of color have been elected to the governing body, which Hunter says is common once an individual proves change is possible.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” Hunter said.
With no Republican challenger, Pressley will become the first black woman elected to U.S. Congress from Massachusetts.
“We committed to running a campaign for those who don’t see themselves reflected in politics or government and are forever told that their issues, their concerns, their priorities can wait,” Pressley said during her victory speech on Sept. 4. “It’s not just good enough to see Democrats back in power. It matters who those Democrats are.”
Hunter says one reason why voters from Randolph to Everett have responded so well to her campaign is because she’s willing to share deeply personal aspects of her life with voters, showing a form of leadership that goes beyond policy.
During the campaign, Pressley talked openly about her personal experiences with sexual abuse and some of the more challenging aspects of growing up with her mother in Chicago, while her father was mostly absent due to incarceration and a battle with drug addiction.
“Her upbringing, her challenges as a child — constituents in the 7th District can relate to those struggles,” Hunter said.
In other parts of the state, women had similar success, including for Rachael Rollins, a former federal prosecutor, who came out victorious in a crowded race for Suffolk County District Attorney. In the Third Congressional District, initial results showed Lori Trahan held a narrow lead over Dan Koh. As of Sept. 10, the duo had asked for a recount. The seat is currently held by the retiring Niki Tsongas of Lowell. The district comprises several cities and towns in Essex, Middlesex and Worcester counties.
Likewise, in a stunning upset, voters in the 15th Suffolk-Norfolk District chose Elguardo over incumbent Jeffrey Sanchez, the highest-ranking Latino legislator. The district includes neighborhoods in Boston and Brookline.
Elguardo’s win sent a strong message to House leadership, as Sanchez chaired the ever-influential House Ways and Means Committee, and it replaces a man with a woman in a legislative body historically underrepresented by women.
In 1999, women held 26 percent of the 200 seats in the state House and Senate. In 2018, the number fell to 24.5 percent, and women have never exceeded 26 percent during the two decades in between. To compare, women make up 51.5 percent of the estimated 6.8 million people in Massachusetts, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Of the 96 female Democrats and Republicans who ran for the state Legislature in the primary election, 76 received the nomination, meaning even if each individual is elected to office — a challenge in itself — women would still fill fewer than half of the 160 seats in the state Legislature.
Nonetheless, the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus, which endorsed a record 58 candidates this election cycle – representing a 38 percent increase compared to the previous election cycle last fall – is optimistic about the general election scheduled for Nov. 6.
Gail Jackson-Blount, MWPC board president, said the shift — albeit slight — signals a change in Massachusetts politics and the people it represents.
“Although we still have more work to do to support these candidates over the next couple months, it is evident that voters in Massachusetts recognize the importance of state politics in influencing our priorities nationwide,” Jackson-Blount said. “They have sent us a clear message — change is now.”
Eli Sherman is an investigative and in-depth reporter at Wicked Local and GateHouse Media. Email him at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @Eli_Sherman.