Social media has permanently changed US politics, creating new challenges and opportunities for women in political leadership, according to former Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift speaking at Boston College Law School. However, notwithstanding progress, Swift shared that research reveals that the press, as well as voters, care more about “hair, hemlines, and husbands” than substantive issues with regard to women in electoral politics.
In countering this point, Swift, the state’s first and only female governor, said during her inaugural address as this semester’s Jerome Lyle Rappaport Visiting Professor at BC Law, “One of the great things about social media is that you really can get your own words out and get your own pictures out.”
Speaking to a crowd of more than seventy-five students and faculty members, Swift said that although social media generally acts as a “fundraising equalizer” and helps strengthen political equity, it can also be a very toxic environment—especially for women in politics.
“Women tend to run less because of the toxic climate. When people were attacking me back in the day, we could fight all night with reporters on the phone, but we had to wait and see what they said the next day and then try to find [other] people to say things. Now, you have your own platforms that you can use to line people up; you can respond in real time; you can craft your own narrative,” she said. “But the internet and social media in general can be a very toxic place.”
Acknowledging that social media is also a double-edged sword, Swift urged students and young professionals to put more effort into online reputation management. “Really, there is only so much you can do about the mistakes you already made. But what you can do with LinkedIn is that you can make that your preferred landing page for all of your professional accomplishments; build that up, and that begins to…become the dominant place where people connect with you,” she said.
Swift is a native of North Adams, Massachusetts, and received her bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Trinity College in 1987. Shortly thereafter, in 1990, she became the youngest woman ever to be elected to the Massachusetts Senate at the age of twenty-five. She was elected Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts in 1998, and three years later stepped up to the position of Governor after Governor Paul Cellucci resigned in 2001 to become US Ambassador to Canada.
A longtime advocate for education reform, Swift was instrumental in the passage of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, and also served as CEO of education company Middlebury Interactive Languages. She is currently president and executive director of an education nonprofit, LearnLaunch, Inc., and a senior advisor at Whiteboard Advisors in Washington, DC.
While at BC Law, Swift is teaching a seminar entitled “Governing in the Facebook Era: Privacy, Propaganda, and Public Good.”