Women on the verge

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  August 20, 2008

MWPC is a bipartisan group that supports women candidates across the aisle; but these Clinton backers are strictly partisan. They aim to fill elective offices in the state with Democratic women.

The work is already starting, with new organizations and programs. But what would take it to the next level — what could make it a potent force in state politics — is if this cadre transfers the unified energy they had for Clinton to the task of getting women elected in their home state.

That won’t be easy; already they are in disagreement about defining their goals, how to proceed, and even whom to include as allies in their effort. But some say that, after Denver, all that will change.

“It is time for us to be at the table making the decision about who is going to run and get elected in upcoming contests,” says Sheila Capone-Wulsin, who took over as MWPC executive director in March. “We’re done asking. We’re saying we are going to have a seat at the table.”

Recent change
Just in the past two years, Massachusetts has seen a series of individual gains for women in politics, most prominently Niki Tsongas’s election to Congress, Therese Murray’s to State Senate president, Martha Coakley’s to attorney general, and Maureen Feeney’s to Boston City Council president.

“I think women are feeling their political power,” says Coakley.

With less fanfare, the Deval Patrick administration chose women for 276, or just over half, of its management-level appointments in 2007 — thanks in part to a special project led by MWPC, called MassGAP.

Still, the number of women in the state legislature is the same as it was at the start of the decade. Women account for the same proportion of municipal officials in the state — 20 percent — as they did 10 years ago, according to data from the Center for Women in Politics & Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts. The state has never elected a female governor (Jane Swift inherited the office); and, of course, there was that quarter-century streak without a woman in our Congressional delegation.

A series of new or expanded efforts to prepare women to run for office cropped up, coincidentally or not, during the course of the Clinton campaign. One, called emergeMassachusetts, is training Democratic women to be candidates. The program graduated its first class, of 15 women, in June, and is recruiting its next trainees. The Massachusetts Democratic Party — which is newly staffed with several women — graduated a group of its own trainees this past week. Oíste, the Boston organization promoting minority political participation, has a new program that particularly looks for women. Similarly, the progressive coalition MassAlliance has been training progressive candidates, including women, and earlier this month held public-speaking and debate training in Boston for a group of women entering politics.

All of this activity has been possible largely because of a small number of like-minded women with deep pockets. Three in particular — all in the infamous limousine-liberal enclave of Cambridge Zip Code 02138 — stand out. Philanthropist Barbara Lee, who funds similar efforts nationally, has been a major backer of recent local projects, as has former ambassador to Austria Swanee Hunt. Maria Jobin-Leeds, who founded (with her husband, Greg) Access Strategies Fund in 1999, is planning a substantial grant program to address the issue of raising the female political profile in Massachusetts. “I’ve always been a feminist,” says Jobin-Leeds. “It was just this year that I said, ‘This has got to be on top of the radar.’ ”

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