At one point, 2002 was shaping up as a banner year for women in Massachusetts politics. With Acting Gov. Jane Swift poised to run for the office she had inherited from fellow Republican Paul Cellucci, and state Treasurer Shannon O’Brien holding the pole position in the contest for the Democratic nomination, the buzz was about a possible governor’s race that couldn’t help but put a woman in the State House corner office.

But the year of the woman it wasn’t. Battered by early missteps in office and swamped by a looming budget deficit, Swift bowed out of the race, while O’Brien seized the Democratic nomination but lost the general election to Republican newcomer Mitt Romney. Today, instead of celebrating breakthrough success in electing the state’s first female governor, some are bracing for the fallout that could come from a double dose of disappointment.

“Politics has been such a male sport.”

“I predict, unless we do something about it, there could be a backlash against women running for governor,” says Carol Hardy-Fanta, director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Hardy-Fanta worries that last year’s experience could feed a can’t-do perception of women candidates, the last thing needed, she says, in a state that lags its New England neighbors, and much of the country, in electing women to office.

Hoping to stave off such a turn–and to ignite interest in promoting more women candidates–the UMass center is hosting a “New England Women’s Political Summit,” October 26 and 27, at the John F. Kennedy Library.

With lineup of speakers that includes former Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro, California Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, and former Vermont governor Madeleine Kunin–as well as Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey and former acting governor Swift–organizers want activists from the six New England states to go home full of information and inspiration that will help women win political offices.

Especially attendees from Massachusetts. Despite a national reputation for free-thinking liberalism, in politics, at least, the Bay State remains a boys’ state. While Maine has two women US senators and a woman state Senate president; New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Vermont have all had women governors; and Connecticut’s current state Senate president and House Speaker are both women, Massachusetts has yet to elect a woman to any of those positions, and has not sent a woman to the US House for 20 years.

“Politics has been such a male sport in Massachusetts,” says Brookline philanthropist Barbara Lee, whose family foundation funded a report two years ago, entitled Keys to the Governor’s Office, that detailed the barriers women face when they run for governor in any state. Further tilting the playing field against women in Massachusetts, says Hardy-Fanta, is one-party domination by Democrats, which limits the avenues of political entry and movement.

Apparently, exclusion begins at the bottom of the electoral ladder: More than one-third of the Commonwealth’s cities and towns don’t have a single woman on their city council or board of selectmen, according to research by the UMass women’s center. Hardy-Fanta chalks that up, in part, to what might be called a self-importance gap. “Women say, ‘Oh, I think I should know about budgets before I run for city council,'” says Hardy-Fanta. “Men don’t say that. They say, ‘I want to run for something important.'”

If women set higher standards for themselves, so, says Lee, do voters, who apply conflicting standards to female candidates. “Women need to be able to have insider contacts, but people still want to see them as outsiders,” she says. “Women need to show that they have compassion and care enough about families, but they also have to show that they’re tough enough for the job.” The antidote, says Lee, is more women running, winning, and holding office.

That will only happen, says Hardy-Fanta, if there are women politicians waiting in the wings. “When Ted Kennedy retires, who’s ready?” asks Hardy-Fanta. As for the state’s all-male congressional delegation, she says, “We should have someone lined up for every one of those seats.”