DRACUT -- While women across the country continue to run for office in record numbers and coalesce into powerful social movements, local female leaders kicked off the annual Lowell Women's Week by praising those fighting for change.
Speakers at Monday's event, including U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas and state Sen. Eileen Donoghue, touched on topics such as the surge of female political candidates and the #MeToo movement while emphasizing the need for women to hold leadership roles.
Or, as UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacquie Moloney put it: "Women are going to save the world."
Several hundred people gathered at Lenzi's on Monday morning for the kickoff breakfast, representing institutions across the city such as the National Historical Park, Girls Inc. and Lowell General Hospital. The theme for the breakfast -- "nevertheless, we persist, we press forward together" -- echoed a familiar rallying cry based on an interaction U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren had on the Senate floor. Attendees chanted that line during the morning's opening reflection.
In an annual update from the state Senate, before the event's awards were handed out, Donoghue described legislation that she hoped would create a more equal playing field while criticizing the need for such actions.
"The Senate and the commonwealth have certainly taken meaningful steps since last week's breakfast as it pertains to women," Donoghue said.
"But sometimes I feel conflicted whether we should be celebrating these achievements or bemoan the fact that we need to pass laws to promote no-brainers like pay equity, fairness to pregnant workers, access to contraceptives and freedom from sexual violence on campus."
Donoghue had been seeking the Senate presidency now held through the end of the year by Harriette Chandler, who is only the second woman to hold that position. In recent weeks, though, Donoghue has been linked with the Lowell city manager's position that will open in April. She declined to comment on whether she is a candidate, saying it was "premature" because the City Council has not formally posted the job.
As several of the speakers at Monday's breakfast observed, the Greater Lowell area has had some success putting women in positions of power. The region is represented in Congress by Tsongas and Sen. Elizabeth Warren and in the state Legislature by Donoghue and fellow Sen. Barbara L'Italien. Moloney leads one of the most prestigious local universities, while Marian Ryan oversees law enforcement as the Middlesex County district attorney.
That level of representation is rare: Tsongas cited national statistics from the Center for American Progress that show women hold fewer than 25 percent of state legislative positions, 10 percent of governorships and 19 percent of mayoral positions in cities with more than 30,000 residents. Congress is no better, with women representing 19 percent of the House of Representatives and 22 percent of the Senate.
But, as Tsongas pointed out, women are now seeking office at levels never before seen. In 2015 and 2016, Tsongas said, about 900 women contacted the organization Emily's List about running campaigns. Last year, the first of the Trump administration, that figure ballooned to 26,000.
"The group had to knock down a wall in its Washington office to make room for more staff," Tsongas said. "So change is coming."
Tsongas -- who herself made history when she became the first woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts in a quarter-century -- is stepping away at the end of her current term. During her remarks Monday, she became choked up while describing the honor of serving, prompting a lengthy standing ovation from the audience.
Five of the 14 candidates vying to succeed Tsongas are women, something the congresswoman described as an evolution from the field she faced in 2007.
"When I ran, there were two of us," Tsongas said, referring to Donoghue, the other female candidate at the time. "Now, to have five and as diverse a field as it is in every way, I think it is a great thing, a testament to this district and this revolutionary spirit for change."