Different Paths to Politics: Women and Political Leadership in Massachusetts

Muna Killingback, Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy | December 12, 2012
Representative Denise Garlick shares her insights on women's paths to political leadership at recent CWPPP event.

Representative Denise Garlick shares her insights on women's paths to political leadership at recent CWPPP event.

A nurse and a stay-at-home mom. These were the backgrounds of two women who have stepped up to roles in public service and currently serve in the Massachusetts Legislature. Representatives Jennifer Benson and Denise Garlick (pictured here) recently participated in a panel on women’s political leadership in Massachusetts sponsored by the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy (CWPPP) at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies.  A third panelist, Sheneal Parker, is an educator who ran a strong campaign for a seat on the Boston City Council.

As part of its "Leading Women" speaker and film series on women’s public leadership, the center hosted this interactive panel to explore how women access and utilize political leadership at the local and state levels in the Commonwealth. Students in the Graduate Certificate Program for Women in Politics and Public Policy introduced panelists and posed thoughtful questions about entering and negotiating the political arena.

Representative Benson’s route to political office began with her work as a school volunteer who observed firsthand the impact of funding cuts to schools. At a PTO fundraiser one day, she was asked if her husband would consider running for school committee. “It was at that moment that I decided to run for school committee,” said Benson.  In her first bid for a committee seat, she was opposed by a man who claimed he was more qualified since he was a businessman and she was a stay-at-home mom.

Benson, who sees politics as a “vehicle to public service,” loved being on the school committee and saw that “it was the best way to advocate for my kids.” Like many women, when approached about running for elective office, she felt she was not qualified and listed many reasons why she could not do it. But strong encouragement from her 13-year old daughter led to a decision to run. She recounts, “I entered the race convinced that I would lose.” In that race she was opposed by a man who argued that he would be a better representative since he had a wife at home to take care of his children, and that Benson would have to leave the office to attend to her children’s needs. She responded that, “’my husband and I are equal partners in the home.’” She won the race.

Sheneal Parker had very personal reasons for wanting to enter politics: her son lost his father to violence  when he was two years old. A single parent supporting her family, Parker became a substitute teacher and saw great disparities in the quality of education offered at different schools.  Reports on the news about violence in the city also made her fearful of letting her son walk on the streets. Determined that she “wanted to see change,” she became active in the community. Parker enrolled in the EMERGE training program for Democratic women leaders and, in 2011, waged a campaign for election to the Boston City Council (District 7). Discussing the difficulties of campaigning, Parker said, “I had a 16-year old and I was never home. He said, ‘Mom, do you remember you have a son?’  It was very hard.’’ Yet she still encourages other women to run, “especially if you have a passion about something.” For the past two years, Parker has served as a research fellow at the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy in its collaborative project Pathways to Political Leadership for Women of Color with the Women’s Pipeline for Change designed to inform efforts to increase the number of women of color in elected office in Massachusetts.

As a registered nurse, Representative Denise Garlick joined the negotiating committee of the nurses’ union and helped address a serious indoor air quality problem where she worked. The nurses, represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, had the only union in the hospital at that time giving them a legal voice and avenue to advocate for health and safety issues which resulted in positive solutions that impacted the nurses and many others. She became more active and eventually was elected president of the 23,000 member state-wide organization. Later, she was elected to the Needham Board of Health and served as its chair, co-founded and co-chaired the Needham Coalition for Suicide Prevention, and was elected a selectman in her town. She was the only woman on a five member board and the only woman to serve in that capacity in many years.  In that role, as an advocate for seniors and healthy aging, she took up a nearly two-decade old languishing issue and lead the successful planning and funding of  a senior center which is now under construction. More recently, despite a “hard primary and a hard general election,” Garlick won a seat in the Massachusetts Legislature.

Garlick offered this sage advice to women thinking about seeking elective office: “Care about something bigger than yourself—care about finding solutions. Don’t be afraid of your passions. Don’t be afraid of your anger about issues that hurt people as long as you channel it constructively.”

At least one young woman has listened to Denise Garlick—her daughter, Monica.  Although she has not chosen a political path, Monica Garlick has chosen a parallel one.  After completing a degree in biological sciences at Smith College, Monica joined the PhD Program in Public Policy at UMass Boston pursuing her passion to work toward improved health policies and economic development.

Christa Kelleher, interim director of the center, commented that, “Running for elective office takes commitment, hard work, and a passion for making a difference—all of which are exemplified by Representatives Benson and Garlick as well as former Boston City Council candidate Sheneal Parker. Their overall message that women shouldn’t wait to be asked to run is an important one given that Massachusetts still has a long way to go to ensure gender parity in political representation.”


Select video clips from this panel are available on the center’s website. The next event in the series will be held in February and will feature Fulbright Scholar Fatma Senol addressing “Women Candidates for Municipal Elected Office: Decisions, Resources, and Structures.”

The Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy offers a one-year on campus graduate certificate program in Women in Politics and Public Policy and an online graduate certificate in Women's Leadership in a Global Perspective.

Tags: center for women in politics and public policy , pathways to political leadership for women of color , representative denise garlick , women in politics and public policy , women’s leadership in a global perspective , women’s pipeline for change

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