As president of the Massachusetts Senate, I have encountered—and still encounter—many challenges. Being a leader is never without struggle, but it can be especially difficult when you are also a woman.
When I was first elected to the Massachusetts Senate in 1992, I was surprised to learn that I was only the 16th woman to be elected to the body since 1790. And making the decision to run certainly did not come easily. Although I loved politics and had worked on campaigns in the past, when I was encouraged to run for office, I hesitated. I was a single mother and thought I couldn’t afford to. Instead, I pursued several different careers before I decided to run for public office myself.
I worked fighting for equal pay for equal work as the director of the Municipal Women’s Project. I worked in community relations for cable companies, and I was also the mitigation director for the Massachusetts Highway Department’s major construction jobs. In many of these roles, I was often the only woman at the table —literally—and I realized I had to make my opinions known and to not take criticism personally. It was evident that I had a passion for equal rights for women and fighting for change where I recognized the need for it, and these reasons, among many others, were what inevitably drove me to the legislature.
I launched my first campaign against a 20-year incumbent and won. When I came into the Senate, I was hoping to use the experience I had gained in my previous careers and requested a committee that was related to those issues. Instead, I was given the chairmanship of the Joint Committee on Human Services and Elder Affairs—issues I knew practically nothing about.
I learned quickly, however, that you need to embrace the opportunities given to you to make a difference. You need to do your homework, know what you are talking about and speak up when you believe something needs to be addressed. I engrossed myself in these issues, tackled welfare reform head-on and ended up changing the way our system ran.
My hard work throughout the years was recognized by my predecessor, former Senate President Robert Travaglini, and I was appointed to be the chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, where for four years I was responsible for crafting a $26 million to $29 million budget. This was an incredible learning experience for me and required much trust in collaboration and delegation—two leadership skills that I continue to be guided by today.
In 2007, I was elected by my colleagues to be the president of the Massachusetts Senate and became the first woman president in the history of the Massachusetts legislature. I continue to be the only woman leader during the weekly legislative meetings with the governor and the speaker of the House, which often allows me to bring new perspectives to the discussions.
Throughout these past seven years I have been fortunate to bring many changes and reforms that not only affect the Plymouth and Barnstable district, but the entire commonwealth as a whole. Whether it was driving statewide transportation finance reform or securing funding for local projects, I have experienced success because of my abilities to listen to the needs of the residents of the commonwealth and also work with my colleagues to find a compromise when necessary. Over the course of my 22 years in the Senate, I have seen the landscape of the legislature change with the many legislators that have come and gone. I have been happy to see more women elected to office, especially since the 2012 election, which brought our legislature’s overall representation of women to a total of 25 percent.
But we can do better. The underrepresentation of women in politics is a nationwide problem and we need to encourage more women to seek leadership positions—and not just in politics.
Throughout my career, I have fought against damaging stereotypes about women in leadership roles, such as the ideas that women are too emotional or weak and are unable to be strong leaders. The sad realization is that both men and women feel this way. Even in the year 2014, despite our belief that we live in progressive society, we still have a ways to go. To move forward, we need to encourage one another and build a network and foundation of support. By helping each other succeed—both women and men—we will be able to create even more opportunities and potential for growth.
I have often been asked what advice I would give to women who want to run for office—and my response is always simply, “Just run!” This advice applies to all people who are interested in running for office. While our commonwealth is filled with so many accomplished and qualified individuals, many young people feel they don’t have enough credentials to run. Likewise, older people feel they have missed their window of opportunity.
Both ideas are wrong. If you want to run, the time to do so is now. It may seem like a scary decision, but what you are able to accomplish is worth taking a stand. If you have a passion for change, that will be shown in your strength as a leader.
As a society, our collective hope should be that we will set an example for future generations to build on our success. But to make this happen, you first need to demand your seat at the table.