Breaking the barriers: Local women tell stories of their glass ceilings

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series looking at the Vermont Women and Leadership report recently issued by Change the Story VT.
ADDISON COUNTY — When Peg Martin broke the gender barrier as the first woman on the Middlebury selectboard in 1973, board chair Earl Cone greeted her with: “You can’t change the color of the town trucks. We’ve just finally decided.”
Redecorating town equipment, said Martin, was hardly the top of her agenda. She’d cut her teeth with the League of Women Voters taking on sewage dumped in Otter Creek, among other issues.
“I was there. I was very interested in being there. And I was very interested in what was happening,” Martin recalled.
She remembers Cone and other selectmen with great fondness (“He was an absolutely astonishing and wonderful man; great, big, burly bear of a guy about as gruff as they came … and he became a very great friend”).
Nevertheless, she also observed:
“In 1973 it was pretty much a different world. It was all old boys. Hey, when you’re the first on the board they’ve got to be old boys that are sitting on the ship. It’s just the way it was.”
Over the ensuing four-plus decades, women have made huge strides in state and local leadership. Yet, surprisingly, the “Vermont Women and Leadership” report recently released by the group Change the Story shows that the barrier Peg Martin and other Addison County women — such as Connie Houston (first female alderwoman in Vergennes) and New Haven’s Mary Palmer Marsh — crossed in the 1970s has remained surprisingly resistant.
Across Vermont, women make up only 21 percent of selectboard members, according to the report. In Addison County, women do just slightly better, constituting 23 percent. The report also shows that fewer than 4 percent of Vermont’s statewide office winners have been women, only one woman has been governor and Vermont women have been elected to Congress.
Yet at the same time, there have been signs of progress toward gender parity. For instance, women make up nearly two-fifths of the state legislature, 46 percent of Addison County school board members, and 39 percent of selectboard chairs.
Why this patchwork pattern compared to the rest of the nation? And within Vermont, why would women surge to leadership in the General Assembly, yet occupy so few seats on town selectboards?
“There are a number of barriers to women in elected office,” said Ruth Hardy, executive director of Emerge Vermont, a nonprofit that recruits and trains women to run for public office at all levels, local to national.
“One is that women actually don’t think they’re qualified. I’ve talked to dozens of women who are supremely qualified for anything, have years of experience, multiple degrees, have done it all. And they don’t think they’re qualified to be on a selectboard.”
Yet the qualifications for being on a selectboard are fairly straightforward, said Hardy:
“You have to want to do it. You have to love your community. You have to be passionate. You have to like people. You have to be willing to learn and ask questions. And you have to be willing to lead a somewhat public life.”
More women gravitate to school board leadership, suggested New Haven selectboard Chair Kathy Barrett, “because of their caretaker role with children.”
Barrett began her own years in public service as a member and later chair of the Mount Abraham Union High School board. That experience led to her appointment and then election to the New Haven selectboard, where she’s been since 2009. Unusually, the first few years Barrett served on the New Haven selectboard, the board had a female majority: Barrett plus Kathleen Ready and then-chair Pamela Marsh. Since the 2016 elections, Barrett has been the sole woman on her town’s selectboard, a pattern that predominates throughout the county.
Martin has an explanation for fewer women on selectboards.
“You know a lot of selectboard work is grim and gritty. It’s roads and it’s ditches and it’s a hard area as a woman to have the background and be given credence that ‘Hey, you know what, I do know something about roads. You know what, I do walk on sidewalks,’” she said. “I’m guessing that on school boards you get a higher representation because … moms are acknowledged to know something about kids and something about education.”
Nevertheless, Middlebury selectboard member Laura Asermily says it’s important for women to bring their voices to the table at the local level. Selectboards, she said, are more than roads and infrastructure.
“You’re supporting social services. You’re managing parks and recreation. You’re holding a library. You’re looking at keeping the community safe and healthy,” Asermily said. “There’s a lot if you just look at the budget categories.”
Women often choose or feel obligated to balance family and work or public life differently than men, said the women interviewed for this article.
One of the first things Martin mentioned in her interview was what an important difference it made in 1973 to have a husband and family who supported her desire to hold public office.
Barrett noted that townspeople in her community still have a hard time finding women to serve on the committees like the Development Review Board and the planning commission.
“They have to give up time from their children and their families,” she said. “Personally, I don’t think I’d be doing this if I wasn’t raised in a family where this kind of service to town was a priority. That’s huge right there.”
Asermily said that when she first decided to run for Middlebury selectboard in 2014, she had to think deeply about whether she could accommodate the demands of the selectboard and still give adequate time to her family.
“I do think we’re holding the other job of home care and child care,” said Asermily. “And not that men aren’t contributing to that. But I think I feel really responsible for those jobs.”
As part of her leadership at Emerge, Hardy has tracked the research on women in leadership. Women, she noted are not only likelier to be caregivers, they also earn less than men and can lack the economic stability needed to run for office. In Vermont, she said, women still earn 84 cents to every dollar men earn.
Finally, said Hardy, women continue to face a more subtle version of the “old boys network” of yore. These more insidious forms of sexism continue to undermine women’s role in society.
“Women perceive an unfair playing field in politics and frankly it’s true,” said Hardy. “Anybody who paid attention to the 2016 presidential election knows that there’s an unfair playing field. The media hold women to different standards and voters hold women to different standards.
“Women are required to be both likable and strong. And likable women are often not seen as strong and strong women are often not seen as likable. So as women we have to walk this really fine line of showing people that we are competent and confident without being ‘bitchy.’ And that’s really hard to do.”
To help women move forward in local leadership, three local women formed Middlebury Women for Democracy in 2013: Hardy, Susan Shashok (vice chair of the Middlebury selectboard), and Amy Sheldon (one-half of the Middlebury’s all-female delegation to the Vermont House).
“The three of us sat down in Amy’s kitchen and started talking about it,” Hardy said. “We had our first meeting here with 13 women in my living room. A lot of the same original people have continued, and more have joined.”
Having the support of Middlebury Women for Democracy got Asermily to run sooner rather than later.
“I benefitted from being part of a cohort of Middlebury women that asked themselves how we could become more involved in local government,” Asermily said. “We looked at all areas of service — committees, commissions, review boards, selectboard, school boards and legislature, and challenged each of us to find a spot to run or be a witness by committing to attend meetings regularly. We agree to do this for each other and to offer support.”
Emerge, the organization Hardy leads, provides that same kind of support statewide both through its formal training and recruitment programs and through its informal network of women giving each other support and feedback.
Society as a whole benefits when there’s diversity in decisionmaking, said Hardy. Research on corporate boards has shown that diverse boards:
•  Make “more economically beneficial decisions for a company.
•  Consider more options.
•  Enable more creativity.
Research has also shown that women lawmakers at the federal level:
•  Are more likely to cosponsor legislation in a bipartisan way.
•  Bring home more money for their districts.
“When the government shut down the last time, it was the women in Congress who all came and got it going again,” Hardy said.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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