For the First Time, Boston Residents Elect a Woman of Color as Mayor

Michelle Wu, 36, is the first woman and first person of color to serve in Boston’s top office. (Twitter)

City Councilor Michelle Wu has shattered Boston’s glass ceiling—she will be the first woman and person of color elected as mayor in the city’s history.

“One of my sons asked me the other night if boys can be elected mayor of Boston. They have been, and they will again someday, but not tonight,” Wu told supporters Tuesday. “On this day, Boston elected your mom because, from every corner of our city, Boston has spoken.”

Wu, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, sailed to a win against fellow Democrat Annissa Essaibi-George— another city councilor who is Arab American. Wu has ended the city’s 200-year span of white male leadership. Acting mayor Kim Janey became the first Black woman to hold the mayorship after Marty Walsh resigned in March to become President Joe Biden’s labor secretary. 

This election significantly departed from the city’s usual political environment, with no incumbent seeking reelection. This mayoral race created a fruitful scenario for multiple women of color to run for the mayor seat. Research from think tank RepresentWomen indicates that women are more likely to win in open-seat races like that of Boston. Male incumbency advantage and the risk of becoming a “spoiler candidate” if multiple women run causes a chilling effect for women candidates. 

With no incumbent seeking reelection, multiple women of color ran for the mayor seat. Women are more likely to win in open-seat races like that of Boston.

In this year’s unaffiliated primary for the open seat race, all major candidates (Andrea Campbell, John Barros, Janey, Wu and Essaibi-George) are people of color. Four out of five are women. 

Boston was “the original old boy’s club,” according to Massachusetts matriarch and philanthropist Barbara Lee

“This bench has been building for a long time in Boston,” said Amanda Hunter, executive director at the Cambridge-based Barbara Lee Family Foundation. “Nationally, it looks like this change was drastic, but this has also been something that has been percolating—building a strong bench on the Boston City Council and seeing women elected to other positions across the state. Every time a woman runs or serves in office, it breaks down the stubborn imagination barrier many voters hold around women in politics.” 

Wu and Rep. Ayanna Pressley. (Twitter)

Wu’s win is also significant to the Asian American community, an underrepresented group among mayors of U.S. cities. Six current leaders of America’s 100 largest cities are Asian American, according to the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS).

“This is a huge accomplishment and motivation for women of color everywhere, especially as Michelle surrounds herself with strong women leaders,” said Madalene Xuan-Trang Mielke, president and CEO of the APAICS. “Women are underrepresented across all sectors, and Michelle’s race is so important to show that not only can we run for office and potentially win, but that we can uplift and win together as well.” 

“Michelle’s race is so important to show that not only can we run for office and potentially win, but that we can uplift and win together as well.” 

Wu’s win is a case study in women helping other women achieve in male-dominated political spheres. Wu became more politically involved in Boston after developing a close friendship with Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), her contract law professor while studying at Harvard. In 2014, Wu would become the second woman of color to earn a seat on the council. Rep. Ayana Pressley (D-Mass.) was the first and is a vocal ally of the Wu campaign.

Wu ran on a more progressive slate of systems change, with central policies of “Green New Deal for Boston,” a fare-free transit system, and greater rent control to counter rising housing costs. 

“We’re ready for every Bostonian to know that we don’t have to choose between generational change and to keep the streetlights on, between tackling big problems with bold solutions and filling our potholes. To make change at scale and street level. We need—we deserve—both.”

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Kaycie Goral is the digital communications manager for RepresentWomen. Follow Kaycie on Twitter @d_Kaycie.