Women find their footing on Western Mass. political stage
The 2016 election of Donald Trump was an unsettling deja vu for state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier.
The nation's selection of a man who belittles and brags about sexually assaulting women reminded Farley-Bouvier about why she got into politics as a member of the Pittsfield City Council more than 15 years ago — women's voices were not being valued.
"People responded and were really concerned about taking a giant step backwards," said Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield. "I think each woman said to themselves, 'What is it that I can do?' When it came time to run for office, there were women who stepped up and people who supported them and we're reaping those rewards."
The "Trump Effect" — a burst of women galvanized to become politically active by the election of Donald Trump — has reached the Berkshires, said local female politicians and community leaders. People are eager to see if the Trump Effect will impact the spring local elections like they suspect it did in the 2018 vote when six Western Massachusetts women ran for state offices.
Five of them, including Farley-Bouvier, won. The others were Lindsay Sabadosa, Mindy Domb, Tanya Neslusan and Natalie Blais.
Prior to the election, Farley-Bouvier had been the sole female representative from the four counties since state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, died in 2017.
The Berkshires is making strides to include more women in positions of city and town leadership — one in five mayors, city councilors and select board members are women — but it still lags behind state and national trends.
Women make up 21 percent of elected leaders in Berkshire County, according to Berkshire Eagle research; 29 percent of the state legislative delegation, and 24 percent of the congressional delegation.
Windsor Select Board Chairwoman Kim Tobin was elected in 2016, and said she was inspired by Trump's candidacy to join the board and help change political dynamics from her hometown.
"I was really questioning — I can't complain about leadership if I'm not there at the table," she said. "I can make a difference on a small scale. There's a lot you can do that's meaningful on a local level and that's where it all starts."
Local women politicians and leaders said creating networks that support female candidates is crucial to having more women serve in public office.
It was a political action group that helped Farley-Bouvier win her first election. With the support of political action committee Women Helping Empower Neighborhoods Farley-Bouvier and two more WHEN-backed female candidates — current Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer and Pam Malumphy — were elected to the City Council in 2003.
Tyer said that network of women in politics is at the ready to help others who are thinking about entering an election.
"I don't ever want a woman to feel like she has to go it alone. All it takes is one call to one woman and we will bring the cavalry," Tyer said. "We will help you if you have political aspirations."
Entering politics is a risk for anyone, but there are often added obstacles for women.
Local female politicians and community organizers said women often lack confidence when considering a campaign and hesitate to run. As the primary child caregivers and home keepers, women also face difficult choices about how to balance their personal lives with what can be demanding volunteer work.
There are two resources to help Berkshire County women circumvent these barriers, build confidence, make connections, and learn campaign skills: the Women's Fund of Western Massachusetts Leadership Institute for Political and Public Impact (LIPPI) and the Berkshire County chapter of the Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus.
"Women tend to have self doubt," said caucus President Pam Berman. "We provide support and endorsement for women. We want to help get women running in Western Mass."
The caucus opened its Berkshires chapter in 2017 and promptly backed the six female candidates running for state office in Western Massachusetts.
LIPPI is in its ninth year of running a political action program that teaches women how to organize campaigns and be influential in their communities. Tyer is a graduate of the program.
But before the caucus or LIPPI or anyone else can help, a woman has to decide to run for office — and just deciding to run can sometimes be the hardest barrier.
A woman needs to be asked to run for political office three to seven times before she will enter a race, whereas a man will often decide on his own to run, Berman said. Women are also more likely to want to prepare for a campaign before kicking one off, where men are more apt to learn on the campaign trail.
"It's like we're retraining our brains to unknown all the socialized humbleness," said Women's Fund CEO Donna Haghighat. "You have to be feeling confident enough to be a leader. People want people who are confident."
Time to run
Farley-Bouvier and Tyer said WHEN's support was critical in their early political success.
The political action committee's support of female candidates included traditional cash contributions and lawn signs, as well as taking care of a candidate's children, cooking meals on busy campaign nights and helping candidates study the issues facing the council.
After WHEN was successful in the 2003 election, the group remained active for a few years, but eventually disbanded. At various times, people have asked Farley-Bouvier whether Berkshire County needs another WHEN and her answer had always been no — until recently.
"People have said, 'Well don't you think we should have another WHEN and I always say I hope we never do. WHEN was formed in response to a really difficult time in Pittsfield," Farley-Bouvier said. "I hoped that we wouldn't have that precondition again. Then November 2016 rolled around and formed that precondition."
Farley-Bouvier said she hopes more women will be inspired to run for public office and that if anyone needs to be asked to step into the political ring, she's more than happy to do it.
"If women need to be asked to run, I'm asking," she said. "I'm asking women to consider running. Get out there."
Kristin Palpini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @kristinpalpini, 413-629-4621.
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