THE ISSUE: Many Democratic women in Massachusetts say the 2016 presidential election was an impetus to become more politically active.
THE IMPACT: Emerge Massachusetts, an organization dedicated to training Democratic women to run for office, has seen applications to its programs rise so much that it’s doubling the number of women it accepts.
Inspired by Hillary Clinton's presidential candidacy, and still stunned by Donald Trump's victory, increasing numbers of Democratic women are diving into Massachusetts politics.
“The national political environment we're in, that's the backdrop to every political discussion,” said Lexington resident Mary Ann Stewart, a freshly declared candidate in the upcoming special election to fill the 4th Middlesex seat in the state Senate. “I think it was a huge wake-up call to people.”
Before his win in the presidential election, Trump drew frequent criticism over comments he made about women. On a leaked “Access Hollywood” tape, the future president was caught boasting, in vulgar terms, about groping women. He disparaged a female political rival's looks, then criticized a former beauty queen's weight gain.
The 2016 election provided a stark illustration of the uphill climb women face in the world of politics, said Roslindale resident Katie Forde.
“You had a woman who was overqualified to be president, and she didn't win the Electoral College vote,” said Forde, who ran unsuccessfully for Suffolk County register of deeds in 2016, and plans to run again. “The unqualified man tends to win.”
Emerge Massachusetts, an organization dedicated to recruiting and training Democratic women to run for political office, reports a surge in interest this year. Last year, 57 women applied to Emerge Massachusetts. This year, more than 200 women indicated interest and 115 applied, according to Ryanne Olsen, the group's executive director.
To accommodate the increased interest, Emerge Massachusetts has doubled its training program to include 48 women.
As of April 28, there were 59 Emerge Massachusetts alumnae running for office in 2017, mostly in municipal races. At the same point last year, there were 27.
“We're building a new girls network to combat the old boys club,” Olsen said. “We've had 235 women graduate from the program (since 2008). What that means is when they do choose to run for office, they have a list of women they can call on to knock on doors, make phone calls, pick up their kids from daycare or write that first campaign check.”
The big picture
The Massachusetts Republican Party, which has a female chairwoman in Kirsten Hughes, did not respond by press time to requests for comment about trends in women's political engagement.
Women have historically been underrepresented in politics, both in Massachusetts and nationally. Women make up 26 percent of the Massachusetts Legislature, a level that has held fairly steady since the late 1990s. In U.S. Congress, less than 20 percent of lawmakers are women, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Massachusetts has only had one female governor, Jane Swift, who was elevated from lieutenant governor in 2001 when then-Gov. Paul Cellucci was appointed U.S. ambassador to Canada.
State Sen. Karen Spilka, who hosted an April 28 fundraiser for Emerge Massachusetts at her Ashland home, said it's important to have programs to support women in politics.
“This did not exist when I first ran, but I wish it did,” she said. “I had no idea what I was doing and had no training.”
Increasing diversity in politics, she said, is crucial for reflecting the electorate's experiences and interests.
“I believe that when women run, women get elected, and when women get elected, they excel,” Spilka said. “We need more diversity all the way from local and state to the federal. Research shows the more diverse a board or an organization, the better the final results are, and the better the product is.”