YOU MIGHT THINK Massachusetts women have it made in politics. US Senator Elizabeth Warren is a leading contender for the Democratic nomination for president. US Representative Katherine Clark is the sixth highest-ranking Democrat in Congress. US Representative Ayanna Pressley is one of the four most famous women who vaulted into Congress in the 2018 Year of the Woman, commanding enough attention to get under the skin of the tweeter in chief, President Trump.
At the state level, Republican Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito is the second-in-command, Senate president Karen Spilka leads one of the two legislative chambers, and women hold three of the other four statewide elected posts (Attorney General Maura Healey, State Treasurer Deborah B. Goldberg and Auditor Suzanne M. Bump).
Yet despite Massachusetts’ reputation as a bastion of progressives, Beacon Hill is still largely a set-in-its-ways, tradition-bound, male-dominated place. Several women, for example, recently spoke up about their lack of power — even as newly elected members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. When they tried to challenge a leadership-approved corporate tax change in October, they were not only outmaneuvered and defeated, they were denied a chance to speak on the House floor.
Despite their ascent, Massachusetts women often discover that their agenda stalls on Beacon Hill. Up close, our state leadership looks a little less liberal than the rest of the world imagines it to be. This year, for instance, women’s groups and reproductive rights advocates were trying to make Massachusetts a leader in expanding abortion access through “An Act to Remove Obstacles to Expand Abortion Access,” known as the ROE Act. But House members have balked at its provisions, suggesting the bill goes too far in expanding abortion rights to minors without parental consent. Lawmakers have also spun their wheels for years — even in the #MeToo era — on a bill that would call for sex education to be medically accurate and cover the concept of consent.
And though the state Senate responded to the #MeToo movement by barring nondisclosure agreements for its employees — which would ensure that state taxpayers wouldn’t be on the hook for hush money to cover up sexual harassment — the House refused to do the same early this year, keeping the option open for victims who want confidentiality. That denial came even after one recipient — an aide-turned-lawmaker who broke her confidentiality agreement on the House floor — advocated for the change.
“It’s the culture of the [State House] that needs to be changed,” says state Representative Maria Robinson, the first-term Framingham Democrat who led the challenge against leadership on the corporate tax change and feels newly elected progressive women like herself are not being heard by the House leadership.
Robinson has gotten used to being the odd woman out — both as a Korean adoptee raised in an Irish-German Catholic household and as a female chemical engineering major at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who launched a career in the energy sector. Even so, she says of the Massachusetts House: “This is still the least friendly work environment that I’ve ever been a part of.”
For all its blue state bona fides, Massachusetts has never elected a woman governor or House speaker. The state’s 11-member congressional delegation has four women (including US Representative Lori Trahan), which sounds impressive, until you consider only four other women made it to D.C. before them. Ever. And despite women’s big gains in the 2018 election, the Massachusetts Legislature is still 71.5 percent male — ranking it an undistinguished 27th among states for female representation. That puts us last in New England and even behind red states like Georgia and Nebraska, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.
On the national landscape, US Representative Katherine Clark opened doors for women in 2018 by traveling the country to recruit candidates for what turned out to be the largest class of women ever elected to Congress. Now the vice chair of the Democratic Caucus, Clark says electing a diverse class of leaders isn’t enough. “[We need to] make room for their perspectives and have them be part of the policy that we set in Congress,” she says.
That’s how the real work will get done, Pressley says — by getting every voice at the table. Pressley notes how one of her fellow freshman colleagues, US Representative Katie Porter of California, used her own experience with domestic violence to make sure economic abuse was included as a form of violence against women during a debate on the Violence Against Women Act. “We all know anecdotally that victims are more likely to stay with an abuser out of economic codependence, but until Katie Porter brought that experience and introduced an amendment, it did not have a chance of becoming law,” Pressley points out.
Pressley first ran for Boston City Council in 2009 on a platform of protecting girls from problems such as school expulsion, sexual assault, and unwanted pregnancies. Once elected, she made it a priority to ask every city department and agency head who came before the council if and how they were allocating funding specifically for young women. At first, “Their answers were a little more than monosyllabic,” Pressley says. “By the second budget cycle, they would come to those budget hearings with crosstabs and multicolored binders. Why? Because they knew someone would ask the question. That is the power of representation — that someone will ask different questions. And when someone is asking different questions it changes the conversation. And when the conversation is changed, it also changes policy.”
THE TUMULTUOUS Trump era is pressure-testing long-established rights like abortion and freedom from workplace discrimination, and Pressley, Clark, and Warren are working to bolster them.
Pressley and Clark have sponsored the first legislation that would attempt to incorporate additional lessons of the #MeToo movement in Congress. The federal BE HEARD (Bringing an End to Harassment by Enhancing Accountability and Rejecting Discrimination) in the Workplace Act would prohibit companies from requiring new employees to sign mandatory arbitration or nondisclosure agreements that could prevent them from speaking out about harassment on the job. It would also make it easier for workers to bring sexual harassment claims.
They’re also pushing for the ROE Act, at a time when many conservative states are trying to curtail abortion access.
“Women are not going to give up their political power, and we are not going to let the clock be turned back on us,” Clark says. “We’re not going away. I think that electing more women begets electing more women and that’s a very positive thing for the future.”
As vice chair of the Pro-Choice Caucus, Pressley has also filed legislation to affirm Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion, and to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which, in most cases, prevents federal money from being spent on abortion. “It denies reproductive care to thousands, mostly low-income women and women of color who rely on Medicare,” Pressley says.
Warren, too, has pushed for all of those measures. But asked what she thinks would be the single most helpful policy prescription for improving the lives of women and girls, she has an immediate answer: Universal child care. “This one is potentially transformational,” Warren says. She believes funding child care should be viewed as a common societal need, like investing in infrastructure, rather than leaving it to each woman to figure out on her own.
“We don’t do that with roads,” Warren says. “We don’t say, ‘You’re trying to get from here to there? Good luck to you. Have you built a road recently?’ We don’t do that with educating our older children. We don’t say, ‘Build your own school now that you have a six-year-old.’”
Massachusetts has the second highest child-care costs in the country, and it’s one of 33 states where infant care is now more expensive than college. Child-care costs consume people’s salaries: A Massachusetts minimum-wage worker with an infant spends 44 weeks’ worth of her annual pay on child care, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.
Warren sees universal child care as a “three-fer.” It would provide babies stronger early learning experiences in the key first three years of life; it would open up opportunities for women in the workforce; and it would better compensate child-care workers, who are now often women of color living in poverty themselves. “We can’t build a sustainable system that exploits the work of other women,” says Warren, who nearly bowed out of her first college teaching job because of child-care problems before she was saved by her Aunt Bee, who came to live with her and take care of her children. “That’s how I got a chance to teach and how I got a chance to hold down my job and move forward in my profession,” she says. “You just want to pause sometimes and say, ‘How many women of my generation got knocked off the track and never got a chance to get back on?’”
Warren is doing more than putting universal child care on the political agenda. She’s also keenly aware of the image she — and the women beside her — is projecting to the next generation. On the campaign trail, Warren often links fingers with the girls who come to see her, making “pinky promises” to remember the exchange and the lesson she imparts with it: “Girls run for president and girls win.”
It’s a bittersweet message for those who remember the brutal lessons of the 2016 election when a girl spectacularly failed to win against Donald Trump. But Warren knows women can beat the odds: Seven years ago, she was a wonky academic newcomer who beat the ever-so-likable Republican US Senator Scott Brown. She didn’t know if she could win then, either. But she decided she could make every moment on the campaign trail count, in two ways.
“I could talk about what’s broken in Washington and how to fix it,” she says, “and I could show little girls that women run for the Senate.”
She started doing pinky promises. And she’s still at it.
“Ever since then, part of my work in public service has been to stop and talk to children about who I am and what I do,” she says. “That’s how we will make change.”
Stephanie Ebbert covers gender issues for The Boston Globe. She can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com.