It's an historic time for women in Massachusetts, with many of them comprising top state and local offices, including Gov. Maura Healey, Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, just to name a few. But why is it so important to have women in elected office, and what difference does their leadership make? Amanda Hunter, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, joined GBH’s Morning Edition hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel to discuss. This transcript has been lightly edited.
Jeremy Siegel: So what has the center's research shown about the opportunities for women who serve in elected offices and the challenges they face when they get there?
Amanda Hunter: Well, one reason that my boss, Barbara Lee, started the foundation — which does nonpartisan research looking at the obstacles and opportunities women face when they seek elected office — is because she knew 25 years ago that having more women's voices at the table, and having more representation at the table in general, was going to strengthen our democracy. And that is exactly what we see both nationally and here in Massachusetts when you look at women's leadership, because women are what we call 360 degree leaders: they bring the entirety of their lived experience to the table. So when you look here in Massachusetts, if you look at our mayor of Boston, for example, Michelle Wu, coming off of the COVID-19 crisis, she had children attending Boston Public Schools. She was a stakeholder when they were trying to figure out the school bus transportation issue. And so she naturally would look at that problem very differently than maybe an older man who did not have children that were directly affected by the bus issue.
Paris Alston: And to that point, I'm just thinking about the overturning of Roe v Wade last year. How is policy affected when women are in office, and when they're not at the table making those decisions?
Hunter: Well, you're absolutely right, Paris. Our recent study showed that a majority of women voters, including Republicans, did think that the government should stay out of women's reproductive health decisions. That same study showed that women voters think that there should be more women in office, and they believe that women are better equipped to solve the problems that not just voters are facing, but that the country is facing. And we've seen for a number of years that generally voters believe that women are more in touch with "kitchen table issues" because regardless of what a woman's family looks like, Barbara always says women are the peacemakers. Women are doing the emotional labor. Women are doing a lot of the shopping. And voters internalize that.
Siegel: There are a number of stereotypes and biases, many of them dangerous, that have fueled the outcomes of elections for a long time. Thinking back to the 2016 election and the aftermath of that, many people pointed to the fact that despite her qualifications for the office, Hillary Clinton was not elected in large part due to the fact that she is a woman. I'm curious: From your center, looking at people who are in office, women who are in office, how does society respond to the policies and the leadership that women have when they are elected? Do we sometimes fall into those same stereotypes in response to women who have been elected to office?
Hunter: Well, Jeremy, unfortunately, voters still do. And we've found for 25 years in our research that when women run for office, voters don't assume that women are qualified. Women have to do much more. Men can simply release their resumé. Women have to really justify what they accomplished in each job. And so we just recently looked at how voters view incumbent women that are in office. And similarly, voters don't assume that incumbent women are doing a good job. So the burden is on women to overcommunicate their accomplishments when they are in office. And so much of this comes down to stereotypes, as you said. We often talk at the foundation about how a lot of voters still have what we call an "imagination barrier" when it comes to picturing women at the highest levels of office. And even though we've broken a lot of barriers here in Massachusetts, sometimes we still see women in leadership held to a different standard because they look different, they sound different, and they are blazing their own trail in the job.
"When women run for office, voters don't assume that women are qualified. Women have to do much more."-Amanda Hunter, executive director, Barbara Lee Family Foundation
Alston: And in addition to those criticisms, I'm also thinking about the challenges they face among their colleagues when they get into office, right? Not only in terms of being undermined or discounted in many ways, but also being harassed. And thinking about our own state auditor, Diana DiZoglio, who says she was sexually harassed as a legislative aide and is opening an investigation into the nondisclosure agreements that currently exist and can keep those things hidden. So with that said, how much further do we still have to go to reach equality for these women in elected office?
Hunter: We still have a long way to go. And even though we have a record number of women in elected office at all levels, both nationally at the congressional level and of course here statewide in Massachusetts, women are still largely underrepresented when you compare it to the percentage of men. In our state Legislature, women make up less than a third of the entire State House. And in a progressive state like Massachusetts, that may surprise some people. So in terms of equity, we still have a long way to go. But Auditor DiZoglio is a really great example of a woman who is bringing her lived experience to the job and addressing problems that maybe a man wouldn't think to even begin to address because her experience was so specific. And that's why it's so important to have a diversity of voices at the table.
Siegel: What can and should be done to make things more equitable? And what can men who are in office do to better support their counterparts who are women or who are looking to get into office in the first place?
Hunter: Well, there are so many things, Jeremy, because we see in our research all the time that voters, for example, scrutinize women's appearance, their voice, their hair, their clothing, in a way that they don't for men, a lot of times because there's a uniform of what men have worn in office for so long and women look differently. So I challenge not just men in elected office, but really all of us: When we hear our friends, our family, our colleagues making comments that sound like they have some gender bias, and racial bias in a lot of cases as well, that we challenge those comments and ask, "Would you still say that same thing about a man?" Because oftentimes the answer is no.