THE MASSACHUSETTS CONSTITUTION is the world’s oldest governing document that remains in effect today. In writing it, John Adams must have had in mind his wife Abigail’s letter, asking him to “remember the ladies.” That ideal certainly matches the Constitution’s eloquent definition of “the body politic” as “a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen.”
Nearly 250 years have passed since our Commonwealth’s Constitution launched an unprecedented democratic experiment. More than 100 years have passed since the Bay State, a bastion of women’s suffrage, ratified the 19th Amendment, ensuring that the right to vote could not be denied on the basis of sex. Still, the work to include women fully in “the whole people” remains. Because Massachusetts has yet to elect a woman governor.
In two weeks, that will hopefully change. A woman is on the ballot for every statewide office. Attorney General Maura Healey, who is running for governor, leads a slate of Democratic women candidates. If Healey and Mayor Kim Driscoll succeed, Massachusetts will become the first state in history to elect both a female governor and lieutenant governor. This surge in women pursuing and winning political office signals an important turning point for our state and our nation. Each election brings us closer to fulfilling the social compact the framers of the Constitution laid out and advances equality for all. In short: When women win, democracy wins.
At the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, our research has shown that women leaders spearhead issues like economic opportunity, healthcare access, and education reform. Issues that impact everyone. The work of US Rep. Katherine Clark—who has long supported affordable childcare, universal pre-K, and paid family leave for all—exemplifies this bread-and-butter advocacy. Ayanna Pressley—the first woman of color elected to Congress in Massachusetts—has similarly championed reproductive, criminal, and consumer justice reform. She’s also introduced the Comprehensive CREDIT Act, which limits discriminatory credit reporting.
Beyond proposing inclusive policies, women in office implement policies through effective bipartisan teamwork. One study found that female US senators have historically reached across the aisle at almost twice the rate of their male peers. My foundation’s research has shown that voters prefer their leaders to work as a team in a time of crisis. And who do voters believe are better at addressing crises comprehensively? Women!
Here in Massachusetts, we saw this leadership from acting governor Jane Swift. Ascending to the governorship after her predecessor’s resignation, she steered the state through 9/11 and its aftermath. She met with victims’ families, consulted top safety experts, and reformed Massport. As is typical for women executives, she prioritized outreach and collaboration.
Most importantly, women running for office today will inspire more women to run for office tomorrow. Research has proven the potency of the role model effect. When women and girls see women in positions of power, they can cut through stereotypes to imagine themselves in similar roles. As Marian Wright Edelman famously wrote, “It’s hard to be what you can’t see.”
That correlation holds true for candidates and voters alike. My foundation has identified what we call an “imagination barrier” that hinders voters from perceiving women as leaders. Over the years, this barrier has been broken by bold, accomplished women paving the way for others. For example, Elizabeth Warren became Massachusetts’ first female senator. In turn, she not only inspired but helped make it possible for Michelle Wu to become the first woman and person of color elected mayor of Boston. The result is a virtuous cycle in which representation begets inspiration, begetting further representation.
Still, some may mistake this year’s progress as proof that women winning elections is no longer newsworthy. A record number of women currently serve in Congress. And a record 25 women are major party candidates on gubernatorial ballots this year. However, the fact remains that our country has yet to approach anything like gender equality in politics. At 51 percent of the US population, women still remain underrepresented at every level of government, from city hall to the US Senate. The gap widens at the executive level: for example, only 36 women have ever won a gubernatorial election. By contrast, 47 men will appear on gubernatorial ballots this November alone.
Make no mistake: The 2022 Massachusetts ballot is truly historic. No matter who you support, the simple act of voting in this election makes you an accomplice to history—and a champion of our democracy. Today, more than two centuries after the ratification of the Massachusetts Constitution, a second American Revolution is underway in the Bay State. And today, the ideals of the framers are finally being realized.
Barbara Lee is president of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.