A conversation with four of Newton’s women government leaders

Newton currently has a woman as mayor, a woman superintendent, two women state representatives and a woman state senator.

Not long ago, that would have been unheard of, given the uphill climb women have faced in politics since the dawn of democracy.

Massachusetts, notorious for having progressive policies but male dominated politics, didn’t elect its first woman governor until 2022. Or its first U.S. senator until 2012.

And Newton just elected its first woman mayor in 2017 and didn’t have a woman superintendent until last summer.

For the close of Women’s History Month, we hear from four women—Newton Superintendent Anna Nolin, State Rep. Kay Khan, State Rep. Ruth Balser and State Sen. Cynthia Creem—who lead in government in (and representing) Newton for perspective on how things have changed, if things have changed, and what it means to navigate elected politics government service as a woman in the 21st century.

EDITORS’S NOTE: The Newton Beacon reached out to Mayor Ruthanne Fuller’s office but did not receive response for this story in time for publication.

Dr. Anna Nolin, Newton Public Schools Superintendent

NEWTON BEACON: Coming from northern New Hampshire, before going off to college and getting into Harvard, did you ever have doubts or concerns about the future because you were a girl? And how did you push past those?

NOLIN: Yes, my upbringing did not foretell that I could have a future as a CEO of a multi-million-dollar organization and did not model leadership roles of this magnitude for a woman.

My high school teachers were amazing, without exception. Robert Corrigan, one of my English teachers ensured that I was not denied any opportunity. He helped me apply to college, paid for my application fees, paid me to work for him as an intern in his English classes and, most importantly, took on my father—telling him what I could do and speaking of my intelligence and work ethic–that I should not be limited to a life in my small town and the jobs available there unless I wanted to.

He basically convinced my father to be open to seeing what I could do. He changed the course of my life.

NEWTON BEACON: Way back in the old days, most school district administrators were men. How do you think the having more gender diversity in school leadership has changed the field?

NOLIN: It wasn’t way back in the old days! I have now been the first female superintendent in two MetroWest districts—arguably the region of Massachusetts that is most advanced and highest quality in Massachusetts.

And despite that, many towns are just now gaining female superintendents. While the number of women in leadership at the district level is changing…it has not been significant until recently.

Teaching is still a largely female-dominant profession, and yet, women leadership at the district level is not commensurate in terms of proportion. I do believe that is changing, but we are not there yet.

NEWTON BEACON: You are now the first woman superintendent in Newton, a school district people literally move across the country to have their kids attend. What’s that feel like, as far as the gravity of that reality, as you have worked through your first 10 months on the job?

NOLIN: I have been on the job since July 1, which is 7 months so far 🙂 I am proud of the reputation of the Newton schools. It is a gift that we are a sought-after district.

The weight on my shoulders is to appropriately honor the excellence of the NPS past and to push the district to a new phase that honors the past and pushes a modern, updated and powerful excellence. 

NEWTON BEACON: If you had a chance to sit down with 10-year-old you in Gorham, N.H., what would you tell her?

NOLIN: I’ll share a favorite quote and speech as advice I wish I had known/internalized as a young person:

“Worrying is like paying on a debt you may never owe.”—Mark Twain 

Dr. Anna Nolin is the new superintendent of Newton public schools. Photo by Bryan McGonigle

Kay Khan, state representative, Middlesex 11th District

NEWTON BEACON: When you joined the legislature, there had only been a few more than 100 women legislators in Massachusetts out of tens of thousands of men. What was it like for you entering a political reality like that back then? 

KHAN: Exactly 30 years ago, I made the decision to run for a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives that was being vacated by Susan Schur, who had been in the House representing the district in Newton where I live for 14 years.

It appeared at the time Newton was used to electing women. Though never having considered running for local office, as an advanced practice nurse with an MS in psychiatric mental health nursing from Boston University with 20 years of experience, and being active in my community and inspired over the years by other elected officials, as a mother of three children in the Newton Public Schools, I felt my health care background would be an asset in the Massachusetts legislature.

Before stepping forward, I learned that women don’t take risks unless they know something 200%, but seeing myself with progressive values, not afraid to take risks, encouraged by friends and other elected officials, I found an experienced campaign manager in Martina Jackson and together we charged ahead and won! 
When I took the oath of office January 1995, and found women were only about 26% of the legislature, for me, with strong mentors like Lois Pines, Susan Schur, many elected women leaders on the Newton City Council and School Committee, a strong woman campaign manager, women leaders, my own mother who testified in congress on the importance school breakfast and grandmother who was able to flee Nazi Germany in 1941, an aunt who became a nurse, during WW11, joined the army, landed on the beaches of Normandy, others in my family, and circle of friends, helped me know I could take on the challenges of a male dominated legislature and learn how to prevail.

NEWTON BEACON: Massachusetts has a long history of contrast between progressive policy and difficulty for women in elected politics. Have you noticed things have changed in the decades you’ve been on Beacon Hill? And how so? 

KHAN: Women often have many challenges, but it is exciting to see the numbers of women running for public office begin to grow over the years and change is coming. We see more women in all levels of the political arena now. The Massachusetts Caucus of Women’s Legislators has also expanded over the years, becoming involved in supporting female elected officials and staffers in the State House, as well as legislative priorities that seek to build the economic and status of women. Some of their recent legislative achievements include:

  • Ending Child Marriage (Rep Khan’s legislation)
  • Creating a Women’s Rights History Trail
  • Campus Safety & Sexual Assault Prevention
  • Pregnant Worker’s Fairness Act
  • Pay Equity

Additional, supplemental info from the Massachusetts Caucus website: 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 centered 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 were 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 10 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.

NEWTON BEACON: What advice would you give women entering elected politics in 2024 and beyond? 

KHAN: For women interested in entering politics in 2024 and beyond, reach out to women’s organizations that support women running for public office like Emerge, Mass Women’s Political Caucus, Women in Politics and Public Policy at UMASS Boston, talk to women leaders, become an intern or staffer, volunteer to help those running for office, take the risk, set an example for the next generation. It is an amazing opportunity that I feel so honored to have experienced.

State Rep. Kay Khan, Middlesex 11th District. Courtesy Photo

Ruth Balser, state representative, Middlesex 12th District

NEWTON BEACON: When you joined the legislature, there had only been a few more than 100 or so women legislators in Massachusetts out of tens of thousands of men. Have you noticed things have changed in the decades you’ve been on Beacon Hill? And how so? And what challenges are still there?

BALSER: When I entered the legislature in 1999, about 26% of the legislature were women.  This session, the percentage is 31% – progress, but not parity!  There has been greater change in the composition of our congressional delegation and statewide office-holders.

When I was first elected to the state legislature, there were no women in the congressional delegation and no women US Senators.  We now have Senator Warren and 3 of the 9 House members are women. The biggest change is with our constitutional officers—with all but one a woman.  

Some years ago, the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus did a survey of state legislative races and found that women did not lose races more than men; the findings indicated that the issue was that fewer women ran.

During the years I have served, the number and size of organizations devoted to supporting women who run for office have grown.  

I have not experienced a lack of respect for women in office – either as a state legislator, or earlier as a member of the Newton Board of Aldermen.   During the years I have served, there has been a good deal of support for women to run and serve.  And women have served in leadership positions in the legislature.

NEWTON BEACON: What advice would you give women entering elected politics in 2024 and beyond?

BALSER: The advice I give to girls and women is that if they have a dream of running for office, to go for it!   Much is changing in the ways girls are growing up and the messages they receive from society, but there are still perceptions of the role of women that have to be overcome.

State Rep. Ruth Balser, Middlesex 12th District. Courtesy Photo

Cynthia Creem, state senator, 1st Middlesex and Norfolk District

NEWTON BEACON: When you joined the legislature, there hadn’t been many women state senators. What was it like stepping into such a heavily male-dominated field and pushing ahead through that reality with legislation?

CREEM: Having served as President of the Newton Board of Aldermen (emphasis on Aldermen) and practiced as an attorney, I was very used to working in fields dominated by men which meant I didn’t think very differently when I was elected to the State House. Like in my previous roles, I pushed forward in my work and found ways to get legislation across the finish line.”

NEWTON BEACON: Massachusetts has a long history of contrast between progressive policy and difficulty for women in elected politics. Have you noticed things have changed in the two decades you’ve been on Beacon Hill? And how so?

CREEM: Massachusetts took some time to get where we are today with women serving as Governor, Lt. Governor, Senate President, myself as Majority Leader, and others in high-level positions. This is an exciting time to see women leading the Commonwealth, but there’s still more to do here and as a nation. We still haven’t seen a woman elected as President of the United States.

Something I’m particularly proud of is how the women of the Legislature came together when we saw Roe v. Wade under attack, we were the ones who put in the legwork to codify the right to an abortion into Massachusetts law.

NEWTON BEACON: And what challenges are still there?

CREEM: Women certainly don’t make up 50% of the Legislature so until that happens, I think there’s still plenty to strive for.

NEWTON BEACON: What advice would you give women entering elected politics in 2024 and beyond?

CREEM: I’ve personally found fundraising, as a woman, to be more challenging than man doing the same so preparing an approach for that early on is helpful. But my main advice for women aspiring to hold public office would be to persevere, persevere, and persevere.

State Sen. Cynthia Creem, 1st Middlesex and Norfolk District. Courtesy Photo