Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Massachusetts Women in Politics Exhibit, Now Open

The Library is excited to present our new exhibit, “Women in Massachusetts Politics.” The exhibit highlights important women in the state’s political history and their accomplishments. Included is a timeline showing important events and people, and a display on the Massachusetts Caucus of Women Legislators, celebrating their 35th anniversary.

The exhibit brings to light women such as Sybil Holmes, the first female state senator. While working at a law firm, Holmes studied law privately and passed the bar in 1910 at age 21. She later studied at both Harvard and Columbia law schools. Holmes served as an assistant attorney general for four years before being elected to the General Court in 1936.

Other women in the exhibit include Susan Fitzgerald and Sylvia Donaldson, who were the first women elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. They were elected in 1923, just three years after the 19th Amendment was passed. Susan Fitzgerald studied political science and history at Bryn Mawr, where her three daughters later studied. She was a strong advocate for women’s suffrage and served in many different organizations to attain the right to vote. Fitzgerald wrote essays to promote equal rights for women, such as "Women in the Home," 1908, "What is a Democracy?" 1910, and "Have We a Democracy?" 1913.

Outside of the state legislature, women made important strides in local government. Alice Burke was elected mayor of Westfield in 1939, becoming the first female mayor not just in Massachusetts, but in all of New England as well. She beat the incumbent by just 127 votes and went on to serve for three more terms. Burke would become known as the Grand Dame of Westfield for her active role and many contributions to the community.

The exhibit shows how far women have come in Massachusetts politics, but also how far there is to go. In 1971, there were only four women in the legislature, out of a total of 300 seats (1.3%). In 2010, there are 52 women, out of a total of 200 seats (26%). The first female senate president, Therese Murray, was only elected in March 2007; and no woman has been elected as speaker of the House. The sole exception is Sylvia Donaldson, who was declared honorary speaker for one day, February 18, 1926. Massachusetts has yet to send a woman to the U.S. Senate; and of the twelve legislators representing the state in Washington, D.C., only one is a woman (Niki Tsongas, 5th District). As women comprise 52% of the Massachusetts population, they are not only underrepresented in national government but in the government of our own state.

This exhibit celebrates the hard work and achievements won by the women of Massachusetts. We hope you will come to view the exhibit, which is now open. The State Library is located on the third floor, Room 341, in the State House in Boston. Please visit our website at for more information regarding hours and directions.

Above: Members of the Caucus of Women Legislators outside the House of Representatives, December 1990.