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Women’s ranks on Beacon Hill drop

Election reverses recent gains

By Michael Levenson and Andrea Estes
Globe Staff / November 10, 2010

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The much-hyped “year of the woman’’ in politics was not much of a banner year at all in Massachusetts.

Despite a concerted effort by a group of veteran women legislators to increase their ranks on Beacon Hill, the number of women in the Legislature will drop to its lowest level since 1998 as a result of November’s election.

Come January, when legislators are sworn in for a new term, women will hold fewer than 1 in 4 seats in the House and Senate, reversing their recent gains and reinforcing the perception that Beacon Hill remains, at its core, an old boys’ club.

In January, the number of women in the 160-member House will fall from 40 to 36, and the number of women in the 40-member Senate will drop from 12 to 11. Advocates who had hoped this election would usher in a larger crop of women leaders are instead fretting about the future.

“We feel bad about it,’’ said Representative Patricia A. Haddad, a Somerset Democrat who joined a bus tour to support women running for the House this fall. “If you look at the women who chose not to run or those who were not successful, it’s a huge amount of lost talent and experience.’’

Massachusetts, which was second to last in New England in the percentage of women in the Legislature, appears likely to fall behind the national average next year. In January, 23.5 percent of the seats on Beacon Hill will be held by women, down from 25.5 percent in 2010, when the national average was 24.5 percent.

“It’s disheartening,’’ said Leanne Doherty, a political science professor at Simmons College who runs a program that matches interns with women legislators. “We need these role models of women serving in public office to encourage more women to run.’’

There is no single reason for the drop in the number of women.

Some of the women who lost their seats to men on Nov. 2 — such as Representatives Danielle W. Gregoire, a Marlborough Democrat, and Pam Richardson, a Framingham Democrat — were relatively new legislators who lacked the solid political bases of veteran lawmakers.

Several veteran legislators — such as Senator Susan C. Tucker, an Andover Democrat, and Representative Karyn E. Polito, a Shrewsbury Republican — retired or ran for higher office.

In addition, women are often more reluctant than men to run for office and, once elected, are seen as easier targets, said Carol Hardy-Fanta, director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

The tally could have been worse in this hotly contested election season, which featured many close races. A number of women who won — including Senate President Therese Murray, the most powerful woman on Beacon Hill — squeaked by with only narrow margins.

“Women are always considered to be more vulnerable candidates,’’ said Representative Harriett L. Stanley, a West Newbury Democrat who defeated Republican Robert Finneran by 4 percentage points.

Advocates this year celebrated the 90th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, in hope of encouraging more women to run for office.

Groups such as Emerge Massachusetts, which supports Democratic women candidates, ran training workshops, and organized fund-raisers. “You really have to ask women multiple times to get them to run,’’ Haddad said.

“I try to make people understand that you’re not running because you’re a woman,’’ she said. “You’re running because you’re a good candidate, and being a woman is value added, in my opinion.’’

But now that the results are in, the focus is on a few bright spots amid the losses.

In a closely watched House race, Republican Shaunna O’Connell of Taunton, a political newcomer, defeated a longtime incumbent Democrat, James H. Fagan, who lost by 49 votes and is contemplating a recount.

“Seeing how entrenched these guys get in there and how difficult it is to make any changes in our government, with no accountability, that was the . . . driving force behind my decision to run,’’ O’Connell said.

“When I started out, no one thought it was a winnable race,’’ she said.

In a hard-fought Senate race, Katherine Clark, a Democratic state representative from Melrose, narrowly beat her Republican opponent to fill the seat held for 19 years by Richard R. Tisei, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor.

Advocates have also pointed out that the number of women in statewide office will increase from one, Attorney General Martha Coakley, to two, with the election of Suzanne Bump as the first woman state auditor.

For the first time, women also managed the winning campaigns for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer, and auditor this year, suggesting there is ample political talent behind the scenes.

Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com; Estes at estes@globe.com.

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