The Legislature has a record number of women in office this year, but Senate President Karen Spilka is well aware that progress is historically speaking, a new trend.

Women were granted the right to vote in the United States just under a century ago, Spilka pointed out. In Massachusetts, more than 20,000 men have served as representatives and senators, compared to only 210 women.

And the portraits of past Senate presidents hanging in Spilka's office featured almost all male faces — that is, until Spilka this week temporarily replaced each one with an important woman from the state's history.

"Granted, some people said it was a little cheeky of me," Spilka told the crowd at a Thursday breakfast hosted by the Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus. "But it was also to prove an important point: that we still have a long way to go to reach full equality when it comes to women's representation on Beacon Hill."

Dozens of elected officials, business leaders and policy advocates gathered in Nurses Hall Thursday to honor Spilka, the third woman to serve as Senate president, and to celebrate what MWPC President Pam Berman called an "incredible year" for women in politics.

Following the 2018 elections, women hold a record 23.7 percent of seats in Congress and 28.5 percent of seats in the state Legislature. Berman described that trend as a positive not just for representation but for society as a whole.

A Women's History Month display in President Karen Spilka's office included portraits of philanthropist Razia Jan, teacher and astronaut Christa McAuliffe, and Judge Maria Lopez, the Bay State's first Latina jurist.
Sam Doran SHNS

"We know that when women have a place at the table, everyone benefits," Berman said.

Leaders have made a deliberate effort to increase access and improve pathways, too. Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito detailed state outreach programs that strive to get women involved in STEM fields, workforce development and more.

Polito also pointed out other additional important roles women in government play. Three Cabinet members — Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Rosalin Acosta, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders — are female, as are more than half of the administration's appointments to boards and commissions, Polito said.

"We have to set the right example," Polito said. "We need leaders here in the legislative body and in the executive branch that are women, to bring our perspective, to bring our action, to bring our energy. We have to be intentional about this."

After the breakfast, Spilka invited guests up to her office to show the transformations she made to the dozens of pictures along the walls. On each frame — other than portraits of former Senate Presidents Harriette Chandler and Therese Murray, the only other women to hold the position — Spilka and her staff placed a printed picture of an important woman from Massachusetts history.

Some are historical figures, such as Sylvia Donaldson and Susan Walker Fitzgerald, who in 1923 became the first women elected to the state's Legislature. Others are more recent trailblazers, such as Sabita Singh, who Spilka said was the first Indian-American female judge in Massachusetts.

There were so many options, in fact, that Spilka described the process in language used by another former, albeit male, Massachusetts politician.

"There were a lot of women to choose from," she said, drawing laughter from the audience. "Many binders filled with women, actually."

Portraits of U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, Maryknoll Sisters founder Mother Mary Joseph Rogers, and Sen. Sybil Holmes - the first woman to serve in the state Senate - were displayed in the Senate president's office for Women's History Month.
Sam Doran SHNS