I n the concrete-lined rooms and hallways of Boston City Hall, you hear an unusual term thrown around a lot: Madam President.
In particular, it’s used when anyone on the floor rises to address Michelle Wu, the 31-year old president of the Boston City Council. Wu, who first ran for office when she was just 28 years old, conducts herself with a kind of gentle surety given her rarefied place in the council’s history — before her tenure, just two other women had ever held the position.
Wu is far from the only trailblazer present on a typical day in City Hall. During a recent public meeting that featured discussions of everything from the city’s policy regarding short-term rentals like AirBnB to striking Harvard dining hall workers, Ayanna Pressley, the first woman of color elected in the council’s history, sat to Wu’s right. Across from Pressley sat Councilors Andrea Campbell and Annissa Essaibi-George — two more women of color, both elected to the council in 2015.
All told there are four women of color, out of 13 total members, who have served together on the Boston City Council since 2015 — something that has never happened before in its history.
“For me it is special to connect with the other woman on the city council,” Campbell said. “I think we, coming together for particular things and particular issues, create power to get it done and to raise the profile of any issue.”
In July, Hillary Clinton became the first woman to win a major party nomination, a historic achievement for women in politics. It has been far from an easy road for Clinton — she has faced unrelenting sexism from her opponent and the media, both of which have questioned whether she has the presidential look or temperament. She has been judged by the shortcomings of her husband, a tactic rarely, if ever, applied to men. And there has been constant speculation about how Clinton, as a woman, would comport herself as the highest-ranking elected official in one of the most powerful countries in the world.
But the White House is far from the only political arena to be unfriendly to women. In Congress, women, and especially women of color, are still severely underrepresented: The United States ranks 97th in the world in terms of female representation in government, and just one in five voting members of Congress are women.
“If you aren’t at the table, you have the chance to be on the menu.”
On the local level, women are more likely to hold elected office, especially when it comes to city councils. A recent study from CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance found that in the 100 largest cities across the country, women accounted for about 33 percent of elected officials — higher than the average at the federal level, but still low considering that women make up 50.8 percent of the U.S. population.
There are a number of well-documented reasons why women don’t hold political office in numbers that rival men: women are more reluctant to run for office, women are more likely to see themselves as unqualified for public office, women are more likely to be the primary caregiver for children or elderly parents that might inhibit their ability to run. And while women, when they chose to run, are just as likely as men to win their races, studies have shown that they have to work much harder to do so.
Once in office, however, there are clear differences between men and women. One study out of Georgetown University found that when women are elected to political office, they excel at the job, co-sponsoring more legislation than their male counterparts. And numerous studies have found a link between the number of women in politics and attention paid to issues that impact women and families — women’s health, mental health, paid family leave.
Without female representation, the policies prioritized by elected officials shifts dramatically — men are less likely than women to sponsor or vote for issues of concern to women, like health care reform, education, or civil rights and liberties. In a study of over four decades of legislation introduced in the House of Representatives, Vanderbilt University found that bills related to law, crime, and family were introduced by 51.6 percent of minority party women, but just 38.4 percent of minority party men. Bills dealing with education were introduced by 38.0 percent of minitroy party women, versus 29.1 percent of minority party men. In contrast, 36.6 percent of minority party men introduced bills relating to macroeconomics — just 25.2 percent of minority party women did the same.
“If you aren’t at the table, you have the chance to be on the menu,” Ryanne Olsen, executive director of Emerge Massachusetts, an organization dedicated to helping progressive women get elected to office, told ThinkProgress.
“Women’s issues affect women in a way that they don’t affect men, and other issues affect women in ways that they don’t affect men,” she said. “We can have some really well-meaning guys at the state house or at the city council, but without that added perspective, we aren’t getting the fullest conversation.”
SIn the spring of 2015, two years after she was first elected as an at-large representative to the city council, now-president Michelle Wu sponsored a bill, alongside two of her male colleagues, to enact the first paid parental leave policy for Boston city employees — an issue she became familiar with while pregnant with her first child.
Wu said she would go around doing her job as a city councilor — speaking with constituents, attending events — and Bostonians would approach her to share their own stories of their pregnancy, or how difficult it was to go back to work while juggling new family responsibilities. And from those interactions, Wu crafted a paid parental leave proposal that included not just women, and not just natural birth, but men, and adoption, and even stillbirth (something Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s paid parental leave proposal notably leaves out).
It was an experience Wu might not have had if she hadn’t been pregnant as an elected official. Even though she wasn’t speaking out paid parental leave in particular, the fact that constituents saw their own experiences reflected in their representative seemed to inspire them to share their own personal stories with her.
“Being able to connect to someone else who is living that experience or connected to that community, gives a whole bunch of new people voice in government,” Wu said.
But a sweeping paid parental leave policy is far from the only mark the women of the Boston City Council have made during each of their tenures. Wu has also been an advocate for policies like raising the minimum wage, which she argues will help women and families in particular — in Boston, families headed by single mothers are far more likely to live in poverty than other families.
Pressley, for her part, has been committed to advancing policies that benefit women and girls more directly — something she has focused on since she first campaigned for a seat on the city council. Once elected, her first official action was creating the City Council’s Committee on Healthy Women, Families, and Communities, which focuses on reducing and preventing violence against women, stabilizing families, and combatting poverty. As a councilor, she also fought for Boston Public Schools to adopt a sex education policy that included having condoms available to students at school.
For Pressley, who was raised by a single mother and is a survivor of both childhood sexual assault and college rape, her commitment to these policies comes from a largely personal standpoint.
“I’ve always asserted that what qualifies me to do this work are my life struggles and experiences,” Pressley said. “For myself and the other female councilors, I think we were all so motivated to run and ultimately said yes to the call of service based upon those life experiences and really bringing that unique lens.”
And electing women hasn’t just changed the kinds of issues that are discussed in Boston’s City Hall — it has changed how those issues are discussed, as well. When Councilor Andrea Campbell joined the council in 2015, she expanded the Committee on Public Safety to include the Committee on Public Safety and Criminal Justice. Like her colleagues, her policy focus has a deep connection to her personal history — her twin brother, who cycled in and out of the criminal justice system, died at the age of 29 in the custody of the Department of Corrections.
“When I think about my family’s history with respect to the criminal justice system, that is a unique experience and a unique perspective that I bring to the council,” Campbell said, adding that when voters elect more women, or people of color, to office, they gain representatives with a wider set of life experiences and perspectives on public policy.
Now, instead of just discussing public safety, the council also discusses issues surrounding criminal justice — reentry, diversion, keeping young people out of the system — in a way that wasn’t talked about before. And while there’s only so much a city can do about prison reform, since those institutions are run by the state, Campbell says that merely talking about the issue has injected a kind of focus at the city level that wasn’t there before — from considering youth development programs to meeting with the county sheriff to discuss tactics for reducing recidivism.
Though the majority of Massachusetts’ incarcerated population is male, Campbell has seen the impact women can have when given the opportunity to shape criminal justice policy.
“I think around certain issues, mothers connect naturally, regardless of race, regardless of where they come from,” she said. “When you talk about, for instance, criminal justice issues, mothers will come together understanding another mother’s plight — they may have a daughter, or a son, who is incarcerated.”
Like her colleagues, Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George is trying to change the conversation around another issue that is at the forefront for cities across the United States: homelessness.
A former teacher, Essaibi-George was first elected to the city council in 2015, and has worked to bring her experiences as a former educator to the council’s discussion and policies. She is now chair of the Committee on Homelessness, Mental Health, and Recovery, and has been dogged in her pursuit of policies that help homeless youth, a demographic she became familiar with during her time in the Boston Public School system.
E“I love all of us being there because we all bring a unique lens, and we demonstrate that women are not a monolith, and they come from many different walks of life,” Pressley said. “I think we care about a lot of the same things, but our approaches vary and it’s important that people see that, because they really do try to generalize what the experience is as women.”
But the presence of more than one woman on the council — at meetings, at hearings, in public spaces — often can help the councilors feel more supported in their role. At a mid-October meeting, after Essaibi-George had briefed the council on updates to her ongoing work with homeless youth, Pressley rose to address her colleagues.
“I just wanted to rise just to commend the Chairwoman for her approach, her passion, and her commitment,” Pressley said. “We can’t close service delivery gaps and address this vulnerable population without having the education about what those unique needs are. So I just rise to commend the Chairwoman.”
“We demonstrate that women are not a monolith, and they come from many different walks of life.”
It was a tactic that recalled strategies employed by other women in predominantly male spaces, particularly women who worked in President Obama’s White House. According to a Washington Post piece published earlier this year, female staffers would use a technique they called “amplification” to make sure that their female colleagues received credit for their work: they would repeat a key point that a female colleague made, giving her credit for the idea. It forced male staffers to take notice.
To Pressley, the move was both intentional and a no-brainer.
“The idea to do it was organic, because I authentically believe that she has brought something unique to the chamber with this laser focus on homeless youth and families,” she said. “But it’s also just to publicly affirm that this wasn’t work being done before. This woman, who was a former educator who saw homeless youth in her class every day, has brought a level of focus and attention on this issue beyond just an impassioned talking point, and I salute her for that, and I’m glad she’s here.”
For the women of the Boston City Council, having three other women — particularly women of color — has been a unique source of strength.
“There is a natural affinity to come together and celebrate one another, to applaud one another, to challenge one another on our perspectives so we grow,” Campbell said. “That feels very special and you definitely see it, whether it’s publicly at city council meetings or behind closed doors.”
Which isn’t to say that the women have not gotten support from their male colleagues — all spoke of the men on the Boston City Council with a deep respect, and praised them for their own open-mindedness and understanding about issues surrounding women and families.
But something special seems to happen when women are able to come together in a space that, historically, has excluded them.
“Politics is typically a white man’s sport, so to be able to insert my voice and my experience in the conversation can be incredibly challenging,” Essaibi-George said. “I think that it’s nice when you have colleagues have had similar experiences.”
Those shared experiences help Essaibi-George feel comfortable missing an event to attend one of her kids’ hockey games, or for Wu to feel okay leading a city council meeting even when she might have a bit of leftover banana on her shirt from feeding her child on the way to work.
“In any organization, there’s more voice when there are more people that have a shared experience,” Wu said. “I think it’s about finding those places of shared experience and starting from that common ground to figure out how we can make this better for everyone.”
Creating spaces where women who run for office can feel a sense of shared experience is one of the primary goals of organizations like Emerge Massachusetts. They strongly believe the more women participate in politics, the more women can normalize the kinds of experiences that women are most likely to share. Every woman who goes through the Emerge process — either a six month training program or a two and a half day intensive program — leaves with 24 other women equally dedicated to changing the makeup of our political systems. And that, Emerge director Olsen said, is a really powerful tool.
“I can’t solve sexism in politics overnight,” Olsen said. “But what we can do is make the process less lonely, and make sure there is a support system in place for when sexism happens.”
E“You can’t be it if you don’t see it, right?” Olsen said. “And more and more, once we are seeing more women come into these positions of power, other women are also running.” Ayanna Pressley, she noted, was the first woman of color elected to the Boston City Council — seven years later, there are now four women of color on the council.
What women and girls see when they look at the political system makes a difference. According to a new survey conducted by New York Times, almost a quarter of teenage girls say that Hillary Clinton’s presidential run has made them more likely to seek positions of leadership. But the divisive, nasty sexism of the campaign has not been without consequences — in the same survey, 17 percent said that Clinton’s bid for the White House had made them less likely to want to be a leader.
“Do not wait for someone to tell you it’s your turn…If you feel in your heart that you can make a difference in your community, go for it.”
Councilor Campbell, who prefers to think of herself a public servant rather than a politician, understands that fighting for female representation in politics is going to be an uphill struggle. She recalls the work of others who have fought against the status quo, whether in the Civil Rights movement or the women’s rights movement, noting that those movements were also “bloody” and “ugly.”
But just because change doesn’t come easy, she added, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth fighting for.
“I tell girls in particular, and women, do not wait,” Campbell said. “Do not wait for someone to tell you it’s your turn. Do not wait for someone to tell you that you need more money, you need more experience, you need more support from certain stakeholders. If you feel in your heart that you can make a difference in your community, go for it.”