Women on the verge

Clinton die-hards have created a new-girls’ network bent on remedying decades of sexism by putting women in elected office
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  August 20, 2008


At next week’s Democratic National Convention in Denver, Hillary Clinton’s delegates will get just about everything they’ve wanted — aside from the nomination of their candidate, of course. Barack Obama has agreed to let them officially cast their votes for Clinton on an open ballot, rather than have the delegates nominate him by acclimation, as is often done when the other candidates have conceded. He has also given prime speaking slots to both Bill and Hillary, and agreed to concessions in the party platform that include an implicit acknowledgement of sexism during the primary battle (without assigning any specific blame).

Tsongas vs. Donoghue
This past year’s election of Niki Tsongas to US Congress was a triumph of gender politics — and a blueprint of how women can co-opt the locker-room style long practiced by Bay State boys.

“When the rumors started about Marty Meehan leaving, the phones of the women’s network were lighting up across Massachusetts — that this was our chance," says Jesse Mermell, Brookline selectman and former executive director of the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus.

There were plenty of good women in the district, including several state senators and former Lowell mayor Eileen Donoghue. But only Tsongas, widow of former US Senator Paul Tsongas, had what matters to the back-room party insiders: personal connections, fundraising ability, and general-election name recognition.

So, well before the campaigns even started, the state’s most influential women began lining up the party apparatus behind Tsongas — and convincing other women not to run.

Donoghue ran anyway, but she was — just like the three men in the primary race — up against the state’s Democratic political machinery. Even EMILY’s List, a national organization supporting women candidates, actively raised money for Tsongas to beat another woman. It might not have been nice, or dainty, but the end result was a woman heading to Washington.

That should satisfy the 19 pledged Clinton delegates from Massachusetts — particularly the 14 women in that group, for whom the ability to register their vote next Thursday for a fellow female has come to symbolize both the progress and challenges of women in politics.

But when they come back home at the end of the week, they will return to a state that remains, for all its progressive reputation, a throwback when it comes to gender politics. Compared with other states that have seen far more advancement, Massachusetts is still a back-slapping man’s world, where women make up less than a quarter of the state legislature, a handful of mayors, and a small (though increasing) minority of back-room players such as staff, campaign managers, fundraisers, and lobbyists. Over the past 20 years, the number of women in Congress more than tripled, from 24 to 91 — while in Massachusetts the number stayed at zero until this past year.

Some of those Clinton delegates, along with other powerful and influential women in the state, say that, once the Clinton campaign officially ends in Denver, they’re taking on Massachusetts next.

“The complacency that women had — that the work of the women’s movement was done — Hillary Clinton made it clear that this is still a relevant issue,” says Jesse Mermell, Brookline selectman and former executive director of Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus (MWPC), a 37-year-old organization.

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