A woman’s place is in the House – and in the Senate

By Katie Lannan, State House News Service

When Lois Pines transferred to a new law school and noticed she was the only woman enrolled, she began to wonder if the admissions officials had mistook her name for “Louis.”

In 1972, when Pines – who would go on to serve as a state representative, senator, and regional director for the Federal Trade Commission – ran for a Newton alderman post, a set of campaign materials carried her name misprinted as “Louis,” after the printer assumed the provided woman's name was a typo.

Pines recounted her experiences in the male-dominated realms of politics and law Tuesday at a Massachusetts Caucus of Women Legislators panel, in which she and other past and current state lawmakers urged young women to run for office.

The caucus's co-founder, Pines said she had her “first really serious fight on the floor of the House” over a bill she backed allowing women to have credit cards in their own name instead of their husbands’. Massachusetts was the first state to pass such a law, and it became the model for federal legislation, Pines said.

“It is critical more than ever before that the people in this room, the young women, those who are committed to public policy and don't like what is happening in Washington, who feel they have good ideas, don't be shy,” Pines said. “Run for office.”

Drawing applause, she continued, “For those who used to feel insecure or may still feel insecure about their ability to do good work and to make a difference, you don't have to do the best. We will be equal when even a mediocre woman can get elected and does get elected. I can assure you that we have less than mediocrity today in Washington.”

In the 387 years of the Massachusetts General Court, a total of 196 women and more than 20,000 men have been elected as lawmakers, according to the women legislators caucus. Fifty-two women – 40 representatives and 12 senators – now serve in the 200-seat state Legislature, making up just over a quarter of its membership. The number of women lawmakers ties a record high last reached in 2009, 2003, and 1999.

“I think it's important and we need to look at what exactly is the reason that more women aren't getting elected,” caucus co-Chair Rep. Colleen Garry said. “Is it because we have a lack of role models in our communities? Is it the image of politics that people don't want to be involved, or is it the traditional mother role?.... Is it that we are the nice girls that might not be able to handle the big boys on Beacon Hill?”

Garry, a former legislative aide, first ran for office 23 years ago when redistricting created a new seat representing her hometown of Dracut. She ran in the Democratic primary against two male candidates, a former state representative and a longtime selectman. “I think they took it for granted that I was the nice girl, and that's what I was kind of hearing around the district: 'Oh, she's a nice girl,'” Garry said.

Garry won the primary by 92 votes, and said the moment where she proved she could hold her own came in a debate where she countered a competitor's claims he had not accepted money from lobbyists or political action committees.

Former Rep. Kathy Teahan, who represented the towns of Whitman, Abington, and East Bridgewater from 1996 to 2006, was sworn in as one of five female lawmakers in a class of 26. Recounting a time she turned down a lunch invitation from Speaker Thomas Finneran with the other officers of her freshman class because it conflicted with her first health care committee hearing, she said women in office often work behind the scenes and seek avenues for compromise.

“Women don't think that they should run,” Teahan said. “They don't think that they have the qualities and the abilities and the skills. Men often don't think about. They just think, ‘this is a great position, this would be a great opportunity, I'm going to run.’ Women need to run. We need you desperately.”

Rep. Christine Barber, a Somerville Democrat in her second term, highlighted the role strong female mentors played in her career as she discussed her experiences interning for former Rep. Anne Paulsen of Belmont and the recently retired Amherst rep, Ellen Story.

“They were not like any politicians I had ever seen,” Barber said. “They were outspoken about the issues they cared about, they were tenacious and they were amazing advocates working on things that I cared about, and for the first time I think I saw a role for myself in government in a way I never had before.”