Yvonne Abraham

Pride - and trepidation

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / December 9, 2009

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No matter where you stand politically, yesterday was a historic day for our purportedly progressive state.

Barring a spectacular implosion by Democratic nominee Martha Coakley, or a superhuman feat by long-shot Republican Scott Brown, Massachusetts is poised to send its first-ever woman to the US Senate come January.

But even assuming that Coakley becomes our next senator, things will still be pretty grim around here as far as women and politics go. Massachusetts has elected only one woman to Congress since 1983. On Beacon Hill, women - including Senate President Therese Murray - make up only 26 percent of the Legislature. With Coakley in Washington, the number of state constitutional officers who are women will come in at, oh, zero.

“We can’t be taking one step forward and one step back,’’ said Carol Hardy-Fanta, whose Center for Women and Politics at the University of Massachusetts at Boston examines the bleak picture up close every day. The fields that have been forming for other offices aren’t exactly cause for celebration either.

Democratic strategist Scott Ferson compiled a list of the names bandied about for various state and federal offices in press reports over the last few months. Of the 39 possible challengers mentioned, only five were women (one of them was Coakley). That’s 13 percent of aspiring officeholders, which is abysmal.

This hurts not just women, but everybody. To paraphrase John Adams, government can truly represent everyone’s interests only when everyone is truly represented in government. And if a framer doesn’t impress you, there are other, more tangible advantages to having women in office. A recent University of Chicago-Stanford University study found that women in the US House secure an average of $49 million more a year for their districts than their male counterparts. It also found that they sponsor more bills and get more co-sponsorship support than male legislators.

Gender was clearly on some voters’ minds yesterday.

“Martha Coakley has a proven record as AG,’’ said Patrice Macaluso, after casting her ballot for Coakley in the North End. “And I always vote for the woman.’’

Coakley actively courted voters like these, but in addition to those hungry for a gender-balanced congressional delegation, she also gathered up others who admired her record. Endorsements by Gloria Steinem and Bill Clinton bookended the final weekend of her campaign.

“She’s very progressive, and I think she’ll do a fabulous job,’’ said innkeeper Tricia Muse. “She’s a great AG, and before that, she was a great district attorney.’’

Some who believe she wasn’t the best candidate will say Coakley’s gender gave her an advantage. If you think that’s a problem, there’s only one way to fix it: Run more women for office.

“If you have more women running, then you switch the conversation to agenda and not gender,’’ said Marie Wilson, president and founder of the White House Project, a national women’s leadership organization. “Throwing up one woman at a time, it’s not working, and we will always be tokens.’’

This state is brimming with talented women of all political persuasions who should be in politics or planning to move further up the electoral food chain. They are talented attorneys and fierce advocates like Cheryl Cronin and Lauren Stiller Rikleen; former officeholders Jane Swift, Kerry Healey, Charlotte Golar-Richie, and Shannon O’Brien; brilliant behind-the-scenes forces like the Treasury’s Katherine Craven, and Katherine Burton, the finance director for Steve Grossman’s campaign for treasurer; entrepreneurs with vision, like Dancing Deer’s Trish Karter; young, energetic officeholders like Brookline selectman Jesse Mermell.

There are many more potential candidates that nobody has heard of. They should step up. And the rest of us should do everything we can to encourage them.

Yvonne Abraham, a Globe columnist, can be reached at