Greg Dennis: Times a-changing for women in politics, or are they?

When Becca Balint was first running for a Windsor County seat in the Vermont State Senate, she got a postcard from an anonymous sender with this message: “I urge you to end your political ambitions and stay home with your children.”
Too often even today, that’s what it’s like for women in politics.
But the times may be a-changing. When over 100 women ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992, it was known as the Year of the Woman. This year more than twice that number ran for the House, and over 100 of them were elected. It’s the first time that more than one-quarter of the House will be women.
Compare that to when Rep. Nancy Pelosi came to Congress in 1987. In that era, says New York Times writer Robert Draper, the few women in the House were regarded by the sometimes-piggish men who ran the place as being little more than “broads, dames” and much worse.
Women in the media were subjected to similar slurs. The columnist Maureen Dowd recalls that when she was chief White House correspondent for the Times, Rush Limbaugh referred to her and other women in the media as “reporterettes.”
During Pelosi’s early years in the House she pushed for larger roles for women in the House hierarchy. The all-male leadership responded by saying, “Tell us what you women want and we’ll pass it for you.”
But Pelosi had a different idea about the proper role of women. “No one gives you power,” she told Draper. “You have to take it from them.” 
And take it she did. As the first female Speaker of the House, she became second in line to the presidency. Her crowning policy achievement was to deliver enough votes for the Affordable Care Act, providing health coverage for millions more people.
Yet Pelosi remains the Republican Party’s favorite punching bag. Those attacks are an obvious appeal to the sexism that is still strong in an electorate where more women voted for Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton. And of course Clinton herself has long been a target for being “uppity.” 
Today Clinton is enduring the Siberia of defeated presidential nominees. But Pelosi is poised to return to power. 
The walls that were built by stale pale males are beginning to crumble, at least in the Democratic Party. For the first time, four key party organizations are now headed by women, who lead the committees to develop Senate, House, gubernatorial and legislative candidates.
A Time magazine cover story last January featured nearly 50 women candidates worth watching. One of them, Greta Neubauer, was a recent Middlebury College grad who had just been elected to the Wisconsin Legislature.
And here in Vermont we solved political gender equality a long time ago, right? 
The story of women in Vermont politics is one of early, groundbreaking progress — then a nearly complete stall.
It’s easy enough to spot female leaders in our state’s politics. Mitzi Johnson was just re-elected Speaker of the House. Middlebury Rep. Amy Sheldon heads the commission updating Act 250. Sue Minter was the 2016 Democratic nominee for governor. The GOP’s Barbara Snelling was lieutenant governor for two terms. 
In last month’s elections, the legislative contingent from Addison County added one additional woman when Mari Cordes won a House seat in the district covering Bristol, Lincoln, Starksboro and Monkton. 
Over 40 percent of Vermont’s legislators are women. But — and here’s the “stall” part — Vermont came close to achieving that figure in 1993. Since then the percentage of women legislators has barely budged. 
We’ve had only one female governor — Madeleine Kunin, who left office 28 years ago — and the Congressional glass ceiling remains well in place. Even Maine, which is similarly underpopulated, had Margaret Chase Smith as its U.S. Senator from 1949 to 1973. Now with the racist Cindy Hyde-Smith becoming a Mississippi senator, we are the only state to have never sent a woman to Congress.
Women account for only 20 percent of Vermont’s selectboard members. While nearly 300 people have been elected to statewide office in our state’s history, only 11 have been women. Political life is even tougher for women of color. Kiah Morris, the only African-American woman in the Vermont House, recently resigned after enduring racist harassment.
But women voters and candidates powered a blue wave this year. At least nationally, women are again rightfully claiming a larger share of political power.
Hillary Clinton, let’s not forget, outpolled Donald Trump by nearly 3 million votes. The massive Women’s March in Washington followed, with breathtaking speed, upon Trump’s ascension to the presidency (thanks to the outdated Electoral College). I was no fan of those pussy hats. But looking at the masses that gathered around America for scores of similar marches, many of us saw a new era where women’s voices would not be denied, interrupted, or mansplained away.
Indeed, even Nancy Pelosi is feeling the heat from young women leaders such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an outspoken progressive and the youngest woman ever to be elected to Congress. When new House members recently gathered in Washington, one of the first things Ocasio-Cortez did was to join a sit-in at Pelosi’s office, demanding a Green New Deal to combat climate change.
As for Becca Balint, who got that postcard telling her to stay home with the kids and mind her own business? She was just chosen again by her colleagues to be the State Senate Majority Leader. She’s also a co-mother of two children and, after years of teaching in schools and then launching a political career, a proud exemplar of what women can accomplish in politics.
How times have changed. And how far we still have to go, even here in Vermont. 
Greg Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennis.

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