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With Mayor Kim Janey, Boston Media Would Have This Rare Chance — A Do-Over

Boston City Councillor Kim Janey in Dudley Square on Wednesday, March 20, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Nicolaus Czarnecki/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald/Getty Images)
Boston City Councillor Kim Janey in Dudley Square on Wednesday, March 20, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Nicolaus Czarnecki/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald/Getty Images)

In all likelihood, City Council President Kim Janey will become the next mayor of Boston now that Marty Walsh has been tapped to be labor secretary in the incoming administration of Joe Biden.

Janey will be the first woman, the first person of color, and not to be forgotten, the first mother in the role.

They say there is no such thing as second chances, but I have great news for the media covering the political scene in Boston: you have an opportunity for a do-over.

You see, I was in a similar position nearly 20 years ago to the day, when President George W. Bush nominated Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci to be his ambassador to Canada. Most reporters are too young to remember how older colleagues handled a pregnant (with twins) lieutenant governor taking over the Corner Office. Giving birth while doing her job was something a governor had never done, and this first resulted in overwrought, intrusive, and at times, ridiculous coverage.

For decades, the research on women in politics has been clear: the press harbors an obsession with what has often been dubbed “Hair, Hemlines and Husbands.”

I would hope upon reflection that even the press would be embarrassed about some of those questions — such as, whether I planned to breastfeed my daughters. Or that they gave any air time to the right-wing commentator who likened my decision to continue to work to "our generation's Vietnam," with the further explication that there would be those mothers (those who gave up paid work and stayed home with young children) who chose to serve and those, like me, who "shirked" their responsibility. Not to mention the endless interviews with mothers at mommy and me play gyms querying whether they could imagine, as young parents, taking on the responsibilities which I had endeavored to perform.

Sexist much?

Today, my three nearly grown daughters find it all quite amusing. Yet, they join with me in hoping that as Janey rains glass down on City Hall Plaza, she is able to do so without the burden of the gender bias their mother experienced.

The author during the ceremonial departure from office with her husband, Chuck, and daughters, January 2003. (Courtesy Jane Swift)
The author during the ceremonial departure from office with her husband, Chuck, and daughters, January 2003. (Courtesy Jane Swift)

For decades, the research on women in politics has been clear: the press harbors an obsession with what has often been dubbed “Hair, Hemlines and Husbands.” This brief by Political Parity documents the trend. But for those who want to skip the full read, here are a few simple tips and tricks for the City Hall press corps:

First: Lose the “Do you think you can have it all?” question — forever. I don’t know soon-to-be Mayor Janey’s family status. I look forward to seeing the smiles on their faces and the expressions of pride at her swearing-in. Cover her family — whatever its composition — the same way you covered Marty’s, Tom’s, Kevin’s and Ray’s. Not only does it keep the focus on policy, which is what matters, but it is a question with no good answers. And we only ask it of women.

Along those same lines, Janey’s significant other is NOT fair game. My long-suffering husband faced criticism for making his family and his farm top priorities. Never one to seek attention, he found himself scrutinized for personal choices that didn’t jive with the conventional wisdom of political spouses two decades ago. Barring malfeasance, unelected individuals should never have their personal history dug into and exposed, especially not for sport.

Third: Put to bed the impulse to cover how women and/or women of color feel about every move Janey makes -- particularly the inevitable misstep. It will be an extraordinary moment in history when Janey assumes Boston’s mayoralty. Diverse viewpoints and representation make a big difference. But the mayor will represent everyone. So, after you write the essential stories about the firsts she represents, shelve reporting on individual grievance. Mayor Janey, like Mayor Walsh and every mayor before her, will make mistakes. How she navigates those missteps will likely have a considerable impact on her political future. Interviews with every disappointed woman or woman of color to highlight their particular disappointment create a wickedly unfair playing field. It’s safe to say everyone is equally mad when the mayor or the governor screws up. And yet I’ve never read a story about how upset the white guys were that mayor or governor X’s missteps were going to make it harder for the next guy to get elected. The job is challenging enough without carrying that burden, too.

Two final pieces of advice: Leave the fashion critiques to Vogue. They are irrelevant to the job. And we all know they are only leveled at women, often in an effort to diminish and degrade.

Similarly, let’s delete “acting” from our political vernacular. I am well aware of the formalities and legalities, but Janey will not be acting like a mayor. She will be the mayor, so refer to her as such. The reality is the use of the word "acting" is a way to delegitimize a person’s power. And in these times, let’s be honest, we don’t need a mayor without the full power of her office.

We all want and need Mayor Janey to be successful.

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Jane Swift Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Jane Swift was the Republican governor of Massachusetts from 2001 to 2003 and is now president and executive director of LearnLaunch.

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