The rate of women in elected political positions around the state has stalled at 21 percent since 1997
When cities and towns make big decisions in Massachusetts, residents in one out of three of those communities are apt to see an unbroken line of neckties at the front of the room. All of their top municipal leaders are men.
Thirty-five percent of communities have no women on their highest governing body, according to the latest data from the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at UMass Boston.
Although first-female state Senate President Therese Murray hails from Plymouth, many local governing boards south of Boston have no women, including boards of selectmen in Abington, Avon, Duxbury, Holbrook, Marshfield, Middleborough, and Sharon. The same is true for the nine-member Braintree Town Council.
The number of communities on that list has thinned slightly, but, overall, women’s participation hasn’t changed in the past 15 years. The rate of their participation in top-level boards, which include city councils, town councils, and boards of aldermen and selectmen, has stagnated since 1997. It stood at 21 percent last year, meaning about one in five members are women.
“It’s discouraging,” said Carol Hardy-Fanta, director of the UMass Boston center, especially because young women in particular aren’t running for office.
“Women tend to feel like . . . they have to know something before they win,” she said, whereas with men, “They wake up and say, ‘I want to be somebody.’” She recalled interviewing a woman who ran for her local School Committee because she felt she needed to learn about budgets before running for the municipal council, and when the woman was finally elected to the council, she found its members didn’t know budgeting any better.
People are talking about the issue in Marshfield, where Selectman John Hall saw a television report earlier this spring about fewer women participating in politics. He called Patricia Reilly, who served on the Marshfield Board of Selectmen before she opted not to run for reelection in 2011, and asked her to speak publicly to the now all-male board, and to people watching at home on public access television, about the importance of women getting involved.
In an interview, Hall said he also took notice of the issue when he attended a local meeting about building new soccer fields. Of the 30 or 40 people in the room, perhaps two were women, he said. A decline in women’s participation would surprise him because people are supposed to be more enlightened today than in the past, he said.
What, then, explains the dearth of women?
“You don’t really find camaraderie and support when you’re a woman,” Murray offered in a recent interview. Women have to do more grass-roots campaigning, she said, and they go into an election knowing the state has never elected a woman governor — Jane Swift served as acting governor — and that Massachusetts has some long-established political dynasties.
At the municipal level, Weymouth Mayor Sue Kay said, she notices, when she invites young people on her cable show and asks who may someday run for office, that the girls express more insecurity than the boys about talking to a crowd.
Kay said she would like to see more female representatives in Congress, but she does not believe gender has been an impediment to her, either in her role as mayor or when she was a member of the Board of Selectmen, before the town started using a mayor-council form of government in 2000.
“I think it’s because my focus was on finance, and there’s sort of a respect” that comes with that, she said, adding she never felt like the town had a “good-old-boy” network.
The Weymouth Town Council, however, is dominated by men, with just one woman among its 11 members.
Large boards like Weymouth’s often have just one or two women, but on a small, three-member board, one or two women alter the ratio dramatically. In Hingham and Freetown, two of the three selectmen are women. Both of Freetown’s female selectmen started on the School Committee.
One of them, Jean Fox, who is also a member of the Bristol County Commission on the Status of Women and was named project manager last year for the state’s South Coast Rail project, said women seem to be backsliding from the progress of previous decades. She recommended watching the film “Miss Representation,” which premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and lays blame with modern media for presenting demeaning and sexualized images of women and making it harder for them to achieve positions of leadership.
Reilly, the former Marshfield selectwoman, said that although women sometimes make up the majority on school committees and in community groups, when it comes to town governance — things like policy making, planning, and development — the picture looks quite different. Communities should make it easier for residents to learn about what the different boards do and how serving on boards could fit into their schedules, she said.
She urged women to consider running. They will serve as role models for girls, and local office is a great opportunity for at-home moms to put the skills they have learned in the workplace back into action, she said. In addition to the Board of Selectmen, opportunities exist on planning and zoning boards that shape the future of a community.
One subject she gets asked about is the title itself: selectman or selectwoman. In response, she tells people, “There are a lot of pressing issues, and what you call us isn’t one of them.”
For many women, the time commitment presents a problem.
Linda Balzotti, mayor of Brockton and the first woman to hold the post, said fund-raising can be easier for men because they tend to have built-in social circles through golfing at country clubs or other means.
She pointed out that for many women, children play a big part in how they spend their time. A mayor’s life is full of evenings and weekends, and for a mother to attend those events and still take care of children can be difficult. Balzotti does not have children, so her schedule is a bit easier, she said, but even so, “it can get kind of crazy, and you have to try to make time for yourself.”
The idea of women feeling torn by family commitments still rings true, said Hardy-Fanta. When a woman goes out of town on business, she often leaves a plan of what needs to be done for her children, whereas a man is more likely to just say, “I’m going out of town,” she said.
In her research, Hardy-Fanta found that men see political power as something that can advance their careers or benefit their businesses. They take time away from work and consider it good for business, whereas women tend to view politics not as a career move but as a means to pursue their passion for an issue.
Women see school committees as a natural place for them, and they see the state Legislature as a place where they can influence big-picture issues, she said. But in cities and towns, there’s a sense that the work is about details, budgets, and accounts, she said.
Last year, women made up a higher proportion of the Legislature — 23 percent in the House and 28 percent in the Senate — than of their local governing bodies.
Another hindrance for women, Hardy-Fanta said, is that people are most influenced by their immediate world, so if women see no other women in office in their city or town, they are less likely to consider it for themselves. The biggest issue, she said, is, “How do women begin to see the lack of representation by women at the municipal level as a problem?”
Times have changed, but slowly. Murray said she was the first woman to wear pants in the Senate in the 1990s. Before that, skirts were an unwritten rule, but even today women are the subject of much more commentary on their clothing than men, she said.
When she first became Senate president, people would come to a meeting to see the president and immediately shake her male staffer’s hand, mistakenly thinking he was the legislative leader.
Asked if she had any advice for young women considering public office, Murray said women should know where their networks are. “If you belong to a team, if you play a sport, you have a network,” she said.
Jennette Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.