BY LILY REAVIS ’21
“I know for a fact none of us ran to make history. We ran to make change,” said Ayanna Pressley during her Congressional election acceptance speech. “However, the historical significance of this evening is not lost on me.”
Democrat Ayanna Pressley secured her position as Massachusetts’ first black woman elected to Congress on Nov. 6. After unseating 10-term U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano in the Democratic primary two months ago, she ran unopposed in the general election.
Pressley’s slogan, “Change Can’t Wait” highlighted her progressive views and appealed to young voters and voters of color, allowing her to win the primary nearly 17 points ahead of Capuano. The 44-year-old will represent Massachusetts’ 7th Congressional District, which is the first and only district within the state in which racial minorities make up a majority of the voting population.
The 7th Congressional District is located in eastern Massachusetts and includes roughly half of the city of Boston, in which Pressley dominated the primary election. She beat Capuano 64 percent to 36 percent in Boston, winning 40,452 votes compared to his 22,831.
Pressley ran a grassroots campaign and refused corporate Political Action Committee money, instead relying solely on individual and campaign contributions.
Before securing her seat in Congress, Pressley was also the first person of color to serve on the Boston City Council.
During her acceptance speech, Pressley applauded the women and people of color who had won elections across the country. “I am grateful beyond words to God, to my loving family, to my dedicated A-team. To the volunteers and the broad and diverse coalition of voters, disruptors, believers, resistors, persisters, activists and agitators that brought us to this very moment,” Pressley said. “And I am so honored and humbled to share both the ballot and the stage with the many visionary, bold women who have raised their hand to run for public office.”
Pressley has a base of support at Mount Holyoke. “For me, [Pressley’s] election shows the power of a strong woman leader and a grassroots movement,” said Lily James ’21, President of the Mount Holyoke College Democrats. “She was the underdog and had to fight against a candidate with all the majority endorsements and support from the Democratic party. However, she fought hard and made people believe in her. That is so, so powerful and inspiring.”
Pressley was born in Chicago and raised by single mother Sandra Pressley. Her father, Martin Terrell, was absent from her childhood as he battled drug addiction. Pressley has said that Terrell was incarcerated for various periods of her childhood.
Throughout her campaign, Pressley often spoke about her mother’s impact on her life. Together, they struggled through eviction notices, issues with child care and Pressley’s experience of childhood sexual assault. In her acceptance speech, Pressley praised her mother for being a “supervoter” and constantly encouraging her to participate in democracy through voting and activism.
“I think her background and identity is extremely important,” said James. “[Pressley] has experiences and perspectives that are lacking in Washington.”
Pressley attended Francis W. Parker School in Chicago, which was mostly attended by white students. Daniel B. Frank, longtime principal of the Francis W. Parker School, told the New York Times that she established herself as an advocate while attending the school. She was a cheerleader and a member of the student government, according to the Times. Pressley graduated high school as salutatorian and was voted “most likely to become the mayor of Chicago.”
After high school, Pressley moved to Boston to attend Boston University, where she was elected student president of her college within the university. She also served as a student senator. She told the Boston Globe, “every position that one could be elected or appointed to on campus, I was.”
During Pressley’s initial run for city council in 2009, her mother Sandra split her time between New York and Boston. Pressley often called her mother the “14th Congresswoman” in Massachusetts and has said that she inspired her Congressional run.
Sandra Pressley died of leukemia in 2011. After her death, Ayanna Pressley told the Boston Globe, “there isn’t a day that goes by that somebody doesn’t approach me and say, ‘I voted for you because your mother asked me to.’”
Maggie Micklo ’21, Vice President of the College Democrats, said, “[Pressley’s] campaign was so inspiring. I had been following her before the primary election and was definitely excited by her progressive platform.”
James also praised Pressley for running a “civil and respectful” campaign. “She never attacked Capuano, but ran a very strong campaign on her merit as a candidate,” she said.
Pressley is one of several women of color to be elected to Congress this November, including Sharice Davids (DKN), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN). “[Pressley’s] campaign showed that younger, progressive women of color can win, especially in a city like Boston but also hopefully on a broader level,” Micklo said.
At her acceptance speech on Nov. 6, Pressley took the stage as the crowd chanted “change can’t wait” and several audience members screamed “I love you.” During her speech, she spoke about the challenges she and other women of color have faced throughout their campaigns.
“When it comes to women of color candidates, folks don’t just talk about a glass ceiling,” she said. “What they describe is a concrete one.”
“I am really excited to see what [Pressley] is going to do,” said James. “She accomplished so much as a city councilwoman and did the right things for her specific district.” She added that Pressley will serve as a much-needed role model for young girls. “She is someone they can look at and say ‘I want to be like her’ growing up,” said James. “For so long, wasn’t the case.”