Primary results suggest sea change for women in Massachusetts politics
For the first time, a Massachusetts election was dominated by women candidates, who won primaries in five out of six statewide races on Tuesday — an unprecedented showing in a state that had trailed in women’s political representation.
With Maura Healey and Kim Driscoll emerging as the Democratic nominees for governor and lieutenant governor, voters could make history by electing the first all-female duo to lead a state. With three additional women on the Democratic slate, and two on the Republican side, the state is positioned to have women seated across the top levels of government in an election cycle many political observers expect will be defined nationally by the energy of women voters.
“Massachusetts has always led and it’s nice to see it’s finally leading by electing women up and down the ticket — after 235 years,” said Democratic political strategist Mary Anne Marsh.
The striking political gains come as women’s issues have moved to the forefront of the national debate and shifted the landscape for the November midterm elections. A surge in enrollment among women voters in some states, along with a stunning rejection of an effort to ban abortion in Republican-led Kansas, suggests that the Supreme Court’s June decision eliminating the constitutional right to abortion has had a galvanizing impact.
In Massachusetts, abortion rights are protected in state law and embraced by an overwhelming share of residents, making that less of a factor. But women’s gains in Massachusetts could be emblematic of an election cycle that has already broken national records for the number of women gubernatorial candidates.
“Women are outraged and they’ve decided to take matters into their own hands,” Marsh said. “They’re going to turn out in record numbers to vote and they’re going to vote for women.”
David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, likened Tuesday’s primary to New Hampshire’s election a decade ago that swept Maggie Hassan into the governor’s office and an all-female delegation into Congress.“
When New Hampshire finally started electing women, it went all in,” Paleologos said. “This is one of those moments in time that people will remember.”
Of course, women have been notching significant political victories for years: Take Elizabeth Warren’s out-of-nowhere run for Senate in 2012, or Ayanna Pressley’s upset win in the 2018 congressional midterms. Women transformed the Boston City Council in recent years, and last year Michelle Wu became the first woman elected to the mayor’s office.
Yet despite its reputation as a progressive bastion, Massachusetts had long trailed other states in women’s political representation. It has yet to elect a woman governor — Jane Swift was elevated from lieutenant governor to acting governor after the departure of her predecessor — and Beacon Hill remains more male-dominated than many other state capitals. The state ranks 30th in the proportion of women in the Legislature, behind every other New England state, as well as Idaho, Kansas, and Georgia, among others. (The Massachusetts Caucus of Women’s Legislators, which has 59 members, is not expecting big gains after November.)
New Hampshire elected the nation’s first all-female congressional delegation in 2012, along with a woman governor. Vermont, though it retains the distinction of never electing a woman to Congress, elected Madeleine Kunin governor in 1984.
“In New England, we were the only state never to elect a woman governor,” Marsh said. “We were surrounded by states with two US senators, women governors all the time, and we couldn’t manage one.”
Entrenched political structures have made it difficult for women to break through, particularly in certain regions with longstanding political machines, said Kelly Dittmar, director of research and a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics.
“We have notable successes of women in all of these states, but when you dig deeper, you understand they have been navigating systems that have been highly structured and controlled predominantly by white men,” she said. “That’s not unique to the Northeast — that’s the whole country. But when you think about why women fare better in Western states, it’s these systems are slightly less entrenched.”
“The ‘old boys club’ has dominated Massachusetts politics for centuries,” added Barbara Lee, president and founder of the eponymous political office that works to increase women’s representation. “The tide has finally turned.”
Massachusetts currently has a record four women serving in statewide elected office, including Healey, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, Treasurer Deb Goldberg, and Auditor Suzanne Bump.
But the gains on Tuesday were unprecedented. In addition to Healey and Driscoll as nominees for governor and lieutenant governor, Democrats chose Andrea Campbell for attorney general and Diana DiZoglio for auditor; Goldberg ran uncontested for treasurer. The only man on the Democratic ticket who survived primary night was Secretary of State William Galvin. Republicans nominated Leah Cole Allen for lieutenant governor and Rayla Campbell was unopposed for secretary of state.
Dittmar noted that in blue Massachusetts, many of the Democratic nominees are heavily favored to win. In a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll in late July, Healey had a 31-point lead over Geoff Diehl, the Republican gubernatorial nominee.
“You could end up with an almost entirely female set of statewide elected officials,” Dittmar said.
Three other states, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Ohio, also have same-party women nominees for governor and lieutenant governor, she noted. Rhode Island’s primary, which could deliver the same, is Tuesday.
Paleologos noted the political range of the women who won primaries Tuesday in Massachusetts.
“There’s great diversification in terms of geography, race, age, pedigree. They’re all different,” he said. “I think that’s really powerful.”
To former lieutenant governor Evelyn Murphy, the first Massachusetts woman elected statewide in 1986, it was a sign of remarkable progress.
“We’re living through a transformational election,” Murphy said. “People yesterday weren’t voting identity politics. They were in fact voting for the most qualified, most experienced candidates. And these were women.”