Local politicians spoke at a panel event on women’s leadership in politics as a part of the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series in the Alumnae Lounge Thursday evening.
The Nov. 12 public event, titled “Women in Politics,” was hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. It featured a panel that included participants from a range of levels of government: U.S. Representative Katherine Clark, Republican state legislator Keiko Orrall and Boston City Council member Ayanna Pressley. The panel was moderated by Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham.
Clark serves as the U.S. Congresswoman for Massachusetts’ 5th district, representing 24 cities and towns — including the area of Tufts’ Medford campus — since 2013. Pressley has served on the Boston City Council since 2009, when she became the first woman of color ever elected to the Council. Orrall is the first Asian American woman to be elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, representing the 12th Bristol district.
When Abraham asked the panelists how they all decided to run for office, all three said they never thought at first to run, let alone win.
Pressley said she started off working behind the scenes in government and that when people first approached her to run for office, she declined to do so.
“I said, ‘Absolutely not,’ but I think, as is the case for many women, I had very legitimate reasons [for not wanting to run],” she said. “But the largest reason was fear. I didn’t feel I was qualified, which is ludicrous.”
Clark responded to the question by saying that part of what inspired her to run for office was the lack of representation of women in political office.
“I never thought I would run for political office, but once I got going interacting with the legislature, there was this moment that you [realize] that there aren’t many women,” she said. “We need different perspectives to really make our commonwealth and representation strong, so when the seat opened, I really jumped at that chance.”
All three women spoke about the importance of having role models and strong support systems in place to encourage other women on the path toward careers in government. Orrall said she never saw herself in a leadership position until a role model showed her not only that she could lead, but how to lead.
“Entering college, I did not see myself as a leader…[until] my friend said to me one day, ‘Why don’t you run for class president?’ she said. “And as part of asking women to run, I think it’s important to show them how to run, and my friend showed me how to run and gave me a sense of empowerment. With that one position, it became clear to me that I had something to offer.”
Clark echoed the importance of female role models in politics.
“The idea that I would ever be able to stand up in the Congress of the United States is just so far from what I envisioned of myself, but we’re lucky to have role models; it makes a difference to have that kind of support,” Clark said.
When asked about the women currently running in the 2016 presidential election, the panelists spoke about about how women face far more criticism for their appearances during campaigns than men do.
“The way [Carly Fiorina] is covered is not fair, and that is the same with Hillary Clinton,” Clark said. “It’s just very different coverage for women candidates. We have to be vigilant I think as women; we can disagree about the issues, but our hairstyle and shapes of our bodies should not be what the main topic is … You just don’t see men covered that way.”
Orrall added that women and men feel different effects of media coverage during their campaigns.
“I think it’s important to communicate who you are on a campaign,” she said. “It’s different for women because you just assume men are going to be strong. I think that’s what the stereotype is, and we’re overcoming stereotypes as women.”
The panel also offered advice to women looking to get into politics, and to people wishing to support more women in governmental roles.
Pressley said it is important to have intention and authenticity when running for office, rather than just focusing on how to get a certain position.
“I think intention matters, and although the seeds of political aspiration were planted for me very early, I think it’s important that you crystalize what is your purpose,” she said. “I want you to be committed to building yourself up so that you can build your community up.”
Clark explained that women should support other women running for office.
“Ask other women to run as well, and make sure you keep asking, because sometimes it’s something you never would see in yourself,” she said. “We bring different perspectives, and that’s important. We need that input.”
Orrall added that she hopes there will be a day when she can look out into the crowd of people involved in politics and see great diversity.
“Women in Politics” was the last Distinguished Speaker Series event of the fall semester. The series aims to engage the Tufts community with discussions from leaders in multiple fields. Tisch College is planning future events for the spring semester.