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History of Women in Massachusetts Government, 1923-1980
By Cynthia M. Sullivan

Women in Massachusetts General Court, 1923-1980

In 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote and to hold office became law; the next Massachusetts election saw two women, M. Sylvia Donaldson and Susan Walker Fitzgerald, elected to serve as State Representatives. Since 1923, fifty-four women have been elected to the Massachusetts General Court. These women have come from varied backgrounds and experiences, different educational and career levels. Some have been feminists or suffragettes; some have been homemakers or wives; some have been lawyers or teachers. Many of these women have had similar legislative careers, but each is unique. Each woman is a product of her personal background and of the era in which she lived. Regardless of her accomplishments or notoriety, each woman contributed to Massachusetts government and to establishing new open avenues for future political women.

The United States—and Massachusetts—has changed greatly since 1923. In the twenties, female suffrage was gained; in the thirties, the country experienced the Depression; in the forties, Americans faced World War II; in the fifties, McCarthyism spread and women supposedly returned to domesticity in the home; in the sixties, students protested Viet Nam and the modern women’s movement was born. The 1970’s, of course, have been heralded as the women of the intellectually, professionally, and sexually liberated women. Throughout all of these national progressions and disasters, Massachusetts has elected female legislators. Since 1923 there has always been at least one female in the House of Representatives. The first female Senator served in 1937-38, but no more were elected until 1949. Since then, at least one female Senator has been elected each term.

The number of female Representatives has fluctuated over the years. In general, it has increased. In 1923, two women were Representatives; in 1979, eleven. Between 1923 and 1937 the number fluctuated between two and five. Then there was a general increase until the number plunged to one in 1949. However, since 1949, the number of female State Representatives has steadily increased. The peak came in 1977 when sixteen women were State Representatives. It must be noted, however, that the number of Representatives decreased by a quarter in 1979, so the dip from sixteen to eleven does not represent a real decrease in percentage but in numbers. Actually, almost half of the women have been elected between 1960 and 1979.

The number of female Senators has generally been small; never have there been more than four. Though the first Senator, Sybil Holmes, served in the 1937-38 session, no other woman was elected to the Senate until 1949, when Leslie Cutler left her House seat for a successful Senate bid. In the 1970’s, however, the number of women Senators has increased to a grand total of four.

Numbers—and percents—can be deceiving. Certainly, the total number of female Representatives and Senators has increased, even more than doubled. However, the percentage of women legislators is still fairly minute. In the House, the percentage of women has increased from less than one percent of the total to approximately six percent. Women have hardly taken over, since they have yet to comprise even one-tenth of the House membership. In the Senate, percentages may be equally deceiving. Four Senators represent ten percent of the total Senate, but the number is hardly overwhelming. It is significant, though, that more women are being elected. Perhaps in the next few years even more women will be elected and the percentage of women legislators will more closely approximate the percentage of women in society.

Women legislators do seem to be serving longer. Until the 1950’s, a large majority of the women stayed in office for two terms or less; very few remained for ten or more years. There are exceptions, of course. Leslie Cutler, elected in 1938, remained a Representative until 1949 when she began her twenty-year tenure in the Senate. Harriet Russell Hart, serving one term in her twenties, was more typical, as was Catherine E. Falvey, who served two terms in the 1940’s.

Recently, however, women legislators have begun to lengthen their stays. Over half of the present women have served for more than four years. The increasing length of the women’s tenure may be a reflection of the changing status of women’s role in politics and in the working world. Women increasingly choose or are forced to develop a career rather than a temporary job; their employment is less dependent upon family members and family responsibilities and increasingly more dependent upon individual needs and desires.

Accordingly, more younger women have been recently elected. Before the mid-sixties, no woman under the age of thirty had been elected to either body but in the last two decades, young women have been elected to both the House and the Senate. Marie Howe and Katherine Kane, both elected in 1964, were thirty or younger at the time of their elections to the House. Two women under twenty-five, Karen Swanson and Sharon Pollard, have been recently elected to the House and Senate, respectively. These two women, young and unmarried, may be indicative of the new, younger women embarking upon careers earlier and without family responsibilities.

Senator Carol Amick, however, a young married woman who has served in the House and the Senate, may represent yet another kind of women willing to combine a career and a family. Certainly, the career woman with a husband and/or children is a new phenomenon. As Representative Joan Menard notes, a woman’s family must consider her career as important as her husband’s; financial stability also helps. Katherine Kane, Lois Pines, and Joan Menard are all examples of female legislators who have combined family with a career. It may be a new trend reflecting the kind of sexual equality that can only be achieved through a real change in social attitudes.

A total change in attitudes toward women and their role in the family and childrearing, however, has not taken place. Since 1923, the majority of women elected to the General Court have been between the ages of forty and fifty-nine. This is generally a post-childrearing period. Although more younger women are being elected, it is still true that the majority of women legislators are between these ages. As such, some of them are former homemakers expanding a volunteer career into elective politics. Some, like Deborah Cochran, quite blatantly declare that mothers should be home with their younger children. Others, like Mary Jane Gibson, are glad that they spent years as a full-time homemaker, but would not impose their values on others.

It is all too easy, however, to assume that all women in this age range have been exclusively engaged in childrearing. Joan Menard, for example, has consistently pursued a career in education and school administration, though her younger daughter is not yet a teenager. Anna Buckley has always worked as an insurance broker, though she is also a mother. The hesitations surrounding the combination of career and motherhood, however, often remain unresolved, as it does not appear that over the years women have generally tended not to combine the two. An unmarried Representative, Marie Howe, professes that family and legislative responsibilities are incompatible. However, more recently elected and younger women seem to be considering and condoning the family-legislature combination option, so perhaps more younger career women who are also mothers will be elected in the near future.

Actually, the number of homemakers elected has steadily decreased since 1923. Until the 1960’s, between a quarter and a third of the women were homemakers; in the 1970’s, only one-tenth of the women have been homemakers. Of course, some women have stayed at home for a while between jobs, but most of the newer legislators have had careers. Barbara Gray, for example, was a writer-editor and then had retired to childraising for some years. Others, like Iris Holland, have spent most, if not all, of their adult lives engaged in a career. Lois Pines, a tax attorney, has practiced law or held office continually, even with young children. No other significant trend in careers among the women legislators is visible. Only eight of the fifty-four women legislators have been lawyers. Others have had government, education, or business careers. There seems to be no trend toward any one profession, but nationally and locally, more women are beginning to work in higher positions.

One should not overlook women’s volunteer jobs, which have comprised most of their experience especially prior to the sixties, few women were gainfully employed unless it was a financial necessity. Women were expected to fill certain roles within the home. Accordingly, many of the first women elected to the General Court appear to have been elite, philanthropic, Seven-Sister-educated, ladies who expanded their volunteer work into elective politics. Susan Walker Fitzgerald, one of the first two women elected in 1922, was a Bryn Mawr graduate who listed her profession as “At home.” Mary Livermore Barrows, a Wellesley graduate who had served in the House from 1929 until 1938, listed membership in numerous women’s organizations, and her profession was identified as “housewife/lecturer” of citizenship and parliamentary law. As late as the 1960’s, Janet Howie Starr, also a Wellesley graduate, was elected without having been employed for more than a year, though she was a Chair of the Red Cross and Board Member of the League of Women Voters.

Of course, most of the first women elected must be regarded as popular elections. Certainly, the average woman in the 1930’s was not a Wellesley or Smith graduate. Some of the first women were obviously activists who declined to subscribe to social norms. Suffragette legislators have included M. Sylvia Donaldson, Mary Livermore Barrows, and Martha Brooks. Any woman who would run for elective office must be regarded as an exception, at least prior to the 1960’s. Certainly, the professional women were unusual. Martha Brooks, an industrial chemist; Florence Cook and Catherine Falvey, lawyers; and Alyce Schlapp, operator of a taxi business, belonged to the minority of women leading professional lives. Therefore, the women elected in the first three decades after female suffrage was gained seem to have fallen into two categories:
            1. The elite woman expanding a volunteer/philanthropic career into elective politics.
            2. The unusual professional turned to politics.
Either type must be regarded as a rarity for her sex in her era.

Further testimony to the conclusion that these early women were exceptions is the fact that most had been college graduates. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of the women elected have consistently held a degree; few have attended no college at all. Through the percentage of degree-holding women legislators has increased slightly in the 1970’s, it is obvious that most women pursuing state politics as a career have been well-educated.  College graduation does not necessarily imply an ambitious career, however; there seems to have been an earlier trend to educate oneself for the sake of learning rather than as prerequisite to a career. The above-mentioned philanthropists were college graduates whose activities centered around volunteer work. The exceptional women who pursued an advanced/professional degree, however, consistently pursued a relative career, usually law. More women offering graduate study and/or degrees have been recently elected, though. Mary Jane Gibson, Joan Menard, Sharon Pollard, Deborah Cochran, and Doris Bunte have all studied at the graduate level. Perhaps this is an indication of a new trend.

Many more women have been elected to the House of Representatives than to the Senate. Of course, the House is a much larger body than the Senate. House seats cover smaller districts, so perhaps women have found these easier to attain. Two women, Leslie Cutler and Carol Amick, have served in both bodies. Only four additional women have been elected to the Senate, which is generally regarded as the higher-ranking, more prestigious office. Interestingly, though thirty-seven percent of the women have been full-time homemakers at some time in their lives, none have been elected to the Senate. Perhaps this office commands a more professionally accomplished or ambitious woman. Female Senators have tended to remain in office longer than Representatives. Only Senator Sybil Holmes has left after one term; Senators Fonseca and Cutler remained over fifteen years, and Elizabeth Stanton served for eight years.

In both bodies, the party affiliation trends have been similar. The Republican Party dominated until approximately 1965, when the percentage of Democrats decidedly increased until over fifty percent of the women legislators are now Democrats. All female Senators have been Democrats since 1969. When Democrats were elected earlier, they were usually from Boston, a traditionally Democratic city. The increase in Democrats may indicate a decrease in elite, as opposed to middle-class or working class, women being elected. Certainly the wealthy, philanthropic women formerly elected tended to be Republican. But recently more diverse classes have been represented. The women are serving longer, and this may indicate serious career rather than transient philanthropic politics. In 1979, the women include educators, homemakers, businesspersons, journalists, and public servants. In the 1970’s, three black women, Doris Bunte, Saundra Graham, and Mary Goode, have been elected .A nineteen-year-old woman was elected in 1974, as were sixty-four year old Elizabeth Metayer and Elaine Noble, an avowed homosexual. Since ages have become more diverse and party affiliations have become more equal, it seems that eliteness is at least no longer a prerequisite to election.

Committee memberships may be more indicative of the women’s roles in the State House. The Senate President, the Speaker of the House, and the party leaders assign legislators to committees. It is certainly within their power to regulate them to non-powerful committees. Ways and Means, Rules, and the Judiciary are generally regarded as the most powerful and prestigious committees. Of the five women appointed to Ways and Means—the most powerful, money-controlling committee—three are still serving. None were appointed before 1959. Of the seven women appointed to Rules, six have been appointed since 1967. Only one woman, Genevra Counihan, has been appointed to the Committee on Judiciary. Thus, women have obviously not usually been appointed to these prestigious bodies. Since most of their women members have been appointed in the last two decades, there seems to be a definite increase in women’s holding more powerful memberships. This may indicate a growing respect for women in their roles as legislators among legislative leaders.

There are a few committees to which women have tended to be appointed. Of the seven committees on which the largest percentage for the fifty-four women have served, six have traditionally been associated with women and their familial/social roles. Over a quarter of the women have served on Education, and almost as many have served on Health Care, Public Service, and Public Welfare. At least one-seventh have served on Human Services and Elderly Affairs, and Pensions. Though the reason for this is not known, one can speculate. It is possible that the House and Senate leaders who decide committee assignments have automatically placed women on these committees, as former Representative Freyda Koplow testified. It is also possible that women have felt more comfortable with these issues as a result of their socialization; if a woman has accepted the major role of wife/mother, she may tend to be more comfortable with related legislative issues. Some women do, in fact, feel that women understand such issues more readily than others, whether for biological or sociological reasons.

It is clear that three-fourths of the fifty-four women legislators have served on at least once of the following committees: Education, Health Care, Public Service, Public Welfare, Human Services and Elderly Affairs, and Public Safety. This is true regardless of the women’s decade of service, occupation, educational level, length of service, party, or age. A woman’s service on these committees is unrelated to their service on any other committee(s). Independent of any other factor, three quarters of the women have served on these committees. This trend is not shifting at all. Though some women undoubtedly are particularly interested in education or other human service areas, it is difficult to avoid suspicion when such a large percentage of women legislators are appointed to these committees regardless of their background. No other committee group could claim a similar percentage of female membership.

Women in leadership positions have been sparsely chosen. Not until the 1970’s was a woman appointed to a party floor leadership position; in 1973, Senator Mary Fonseca was named Majority Whip, and in 1979, Representative Iris Holland was named Minority Whip. Carol Amick was President of her Freshman Class of Representatives and Deborah Cochran Vice-President of hers, but these positions are generally honorary.

Female Committee Chairs and Vice-Chairs have been few and concentrated. Ten women have been Senate Chairs or Vice-Chairs and seven have been appointed House Chairs or Vice-Chairs. Seven of these appointments have been to traditionally female-related committees, and nine have been made in the 1970’s. Some of these women have been among the most highly respect and/or powerful of the women, such as Leslie Cutler and Mary Fonseca. We have yet to see whether a larger number of women will be appointed to these positions in the future. Many women who have served as long as any male Chair of Vice-Chair have not been appointed as either.

Though in some ways these women may not appear exceptional in their legislative careers considering those with homemaking backgrounds and the infrequency of their powerful appointments, they are exceptional if only because they are all members of a minority of women who have dared to seek and hold office in the male-dominated, male-oriented arena of Massachusetts state politics. Individually, these women are all interesting and remarkable in their lives and their accomplishments. For example, M. Sylvia Donaldson strongly opposed the same female jury service bill that Leslie Cutler and Margaret Spear managed to pass a quarter century later. Margaret Spear was a formidable candidate for the legislature that all other candidates of both parties withdrew as she entered. Beatrice Keene Webber Corliss was Mayor of Gloucester before serving in the State House. Freyda Koplow has served as Commissioner of Banks, Mary Newman has served as Secretary of Manpower, Lois Pines is regional Director of the Federal Trade Commission, and Katherine Kane is Deputy Mayor of Boston. Lois Pines, Elaine Noble, and Martha Brooks Brookings (in 1929) have all run for higher elective offices. This group of fifty-four women is certainly a remarkable lot.

Most of these women have been respected leaders in their communities and in their professions. Many have served their communities on a local, as well as state, level. Each has contributed to women’s history and each has made similar paths more accessible to future women. The 1979-80 women legislators are diverse in age, party affiliation, prior occupation, and life experience. They, like their predecessors, intend to perform well, not only as women, but as legislators elected to serve their respective constituents. In some ways, female politicians still have a lot to learn. The political world is still dominated by men, and many feel that the Massachusetts Caucus of Women Legislators has far to go as a rival of the male “old boy network.” Women are not brought up to form support groups, but they are trying. Women are staying in office longer, and they are becoming involved in areas outside of their traditional smaller sphere of issues. The individual profiles of women that follow tell the individual stories. Hopefully, in ten or twenty years their number will be greatly increased as women contribute to explore new careers in local, state, and federal politics.

History of the Caucus of Women Legislators

Written July 1998 - found in the Caucus Office

The Caucus was founded in April 1975 by 14 women from the House of Representatives. The fourteen women were: Carol Amick, Doris Bunte, Eleanor Campobasso, Genevra Counihan, Mary Fantasia, Ann Gannett, Mary Goode, Barbara Gray, Iris Holland, Marie Howe, Elizabeth Metayer, Elaine Noble, Lois Pines and Karen Swanson. With its inception, the then Speaker of the House (David Bartley) provided the organization with a staff person. Two Representatives, Marie Howe and Lois Pines, assumed the roles of Co-Chairs.

The determining factors behind the group's development were a desire among the members to pass the state ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) and a general sense of camaraderie and support. Members frequently supported each other on the floor by relinquishing their debate time for one another despite the issue or position and by giving their undivided attention to a woman speaking at the rostrum.

Initially, the Caucus agreed to elect rotating officers for six month terms. A quorum of six members was established to conduct routine business, membership fees were set, and an agreement was reached that Caucus priorities and actions would be established by consensus. It was decided in 1993 that Caucus Co-Chairs, one Senator and one Representative should serve for one year terms. Co-Chairs rotate alphabetically. Over the years, the Caucus has grown in size (there are currently 46 women legislators, most of whom have joined the Caucus). Membership also includes Senators.

Originally, the Caucus supported a small number of bills and met frequently with state visitors and dignitaries. But the bulk of activity centered around strategy on the ERA. In recent years, the Caucus has supported not only a list of bills, but budget items also, both in line with the priority issues of the Caucus and the areas of particular interest to the task forces.

The Caucus has evolved a set of objectives around which their work centers. They include enhancing the economic status of women by promoting their economic independence; protecting women's individual rights; encouraging and fostering women in all levels of government as employees, legislators, and government officials; and providing communications services for women's organizations and legislators regarding women's issue and the process of public policy decision-making and power.

As the Caucus has grown, so have the issues in which they have become involved. In the early years, interest centers around ERA implementation, maternity leave, divorce, rape, displaced homemakers, equal credit opportunities, midwifery and child care. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, new issues were added to their agenda: affirmative action, domestic violence, DES, sexual harassment, firearms, flex-time, mastectomies and services for the elderly. The remainder of the 1980s saw interest grow in the areas of health care, pregnant and parenting teens, surrogacy, gender bias in courts, discrimination, housing, women in the criminal justice system, and poverty. The 1990s have so far been dominated by the issues of domestic violence, welfare reform, and economic empowerment. For the Caucus, the effect these critical issues and their outcomes have on women and their children in Massachusetts have been of paramount concern.

During the last ten years, the Caucus has established several sub-committees to explore more thoroughly some of these issues. Current task forces of the Caucus are: Adolescent Health, Women's Health, Women in Poverty, Women in the Criminal Justice System and Domestic Violence. Starting in 1990, the priority issue of the Caucus was Domestic Violence. Several pieces of legislation filed and supported by the Caucus resulted in significant changes in the laws protecting battered women and their children. Caucus members have also been instrumental in securing and increasing funding for programs and shelters for battered women. During the 1997 Annual Meeting, the members voted to change the focus to the issue of reforming the pension system and promoting women's economic independence.

As legislators, Caucus members have the opportunity to address the needs of women in the Commonwealth through several avenues, including legislation to produce statutory changes, oversight of the Executive branch and by passage of the annual state budget. Each year, the Caucus systematically studies the dollars in this budget which provides critical services for women and their pregnant and parenting teens, breast care, health care, housing, rape crisis centers, education and training opportunities, welfare benefits, and services to incarcerated women. Over the years, the Caucus has developed into a sophisticated organization, serious about its commitment to strengthening the position of women and ensuring their economic self-sufficiency both inside and outside the government through the legislative process.