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Vermont’s Political Gender Gap

While N.H. Boasts All-Distaff Delegation, in D.C. It’s a Vt. Boys’ Club

  • Vermont state Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, leads a committee meeting as chairwoman of the Government Operations Committee at the Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier on Thursday. Eight of the House’s 15 committee’s are chaired by women. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Vermont state Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, leads a committee meeting as chairwoman of the Government Operations Committee at the Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier on Thursday. Eight of the House’s 15 committee’s are chaired by women. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

  • The five women holding New Hampshire’s top political offices, from left, Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan, U.S. Reps.-elect Ann McLane Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter, and U.S. Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen participate in a panel discussion last December in Manchester. (Associated Press - Jim Cole)

    The five women holding New Hampshire’s top political offices, from left, Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan, U.S. Reps.-elect Ann McLane Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter, and U.S. Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen participate in a panel discussion last December in Manchester. (Associated Press - Jim Cole)

  • “I don’t think (gender) matters to Vermonters, they’re really looking at who you are and what you stand for.” -- Martha Rainville (Associated Press - Toby Talbot)

    “I don’t think (gender) matters to Vermonters, they’re really looking at who you are and what you stand for.” -- Martha Rainville (Associated Press - Toby Talbot)

  • House Speaker Gaye Symington, right, smiles with former Gov. Madeleine Kunin in Montpelier before Symington announced her candidacy for governor in May 2008. (Associated Press - Toby Talbot)

    House Speaker Gaye Symington, right, smiles with former Gov. Madeleine Kunin in Montpelier before Symington announced her candidacy for governor in May 2008. (Associated Press - Toby Talbot)

  • Rep. Sarah Buxton laughs with Vermont Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Reiber following Gov. Peter Shumlin’s annual budget address at the Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier on Thursday. At right is Sandy Conrad, of Royalton. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Rep. Sarah Buxton laughs with Vermont Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Reiber following Gov. Peter Shumlin’s annual budget address at the Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier on Thursday. At right is Sandy Conrad, of Royalton. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

  • Vermont state Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, leads a committee meeting as chairwoman of the Government Operations Committee at the Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier on Thursday. Eight of the House’s 15 committee’s are chaired by women. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • The five women holding New Hampshire’s top political offices, from left, Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan, U.S. Reps.-elect Ann McLane Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter, and U.S. Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen participate in a panel discussion last December in Manchester. (Associated Press - Jim Cole)
  • “I don’t think (gender) matters to Vermonters, they’re really looking at who you are and what you stand for.” -- Martha Rainville (Associated Press - Toby Talbot)
  • House Speaker Gaye Symington, right, smiles with former Gov. Madeleine Kunin in Montpelier before Symington announced her candidacy for governor in May 2008. (Associated Press - Toby Talbot)
  • Rep. Sarah Buxton laughs with Vermont Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Reiber following Gov. Peter Shumlin’s annual budget address at the Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier on Thursday. At right is Sandy Conrad, of Royalton. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

As the first woman elected to Congress in 1916, Jeanette Rankin ran for a House seat, pledging to work for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the vote. She served from 1917 to 1919, and again from 1941 to 1943. The Montana Republican knew what she’d accomplished was singular, except in one regard.

“I may be the first woman member of Congress,” she said after being sworn in, “but I won’t be the last.”

Since then, nearly 300 women have served in the Senate and the House of Representatives, and it’s been 40 years since women began to enter Congress not as footnotes, one-offs, or widows filling out their husband’s terms but as equals rightfully taking their place on the national stage.

Women still represent only 18.3 percent of Congress, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. But after the November elections a record number of women now serve in Congress: 20 in the Senate, and 70 in the House,

And in an electoral grand slam, New Hampshire has the first all-female delegation in Congress’s history. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat and former governor was elected to the Senate in 2008, and Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, was elected to the Senate in 2010. Last fall, voters sent Ann McLane Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter, both Democrats, to the House of Representatives, as well as electing Maggie Hassan, a former majority leader in the New Hampshire Senate, the state’s second female governor.

It’s so rare now for women not to be part of the political process that there are only four states that have never sent a woman to Congress: Delaware, Iowa, Mississippi and Vermont.

Vermont?

The first state in the union to abolish slavery, in 1791? The first state to make civil unions legal, in 1999? The fourth state to make same-sex marriage a legal right, in 2009? Given the state’s reputation for progressive politics, its shift toward the Democratic party, which has brought more women into office than the Republican party, and its history of striving for equality, this deficit at the federal level seems uncharacteristic, even baffling.

“It does fly against the state’s empirical record on women on every front,” said Frank Bryan, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and a frequent analyst on Vermont Public Radio.

“Frankly, I don’t think people know we’ve never elected a woman,” said former Gov. Madeleine Kunin, who served from 1985 to 1991 and was the first, and still the only, woman to be elected to the office in Vermont.

The discrepancy is particularly striking because the picture at the state level couldn’t be more different. With a legislature composed of 40 percent women, Vermont is second in female representation only to Colorado, whose legislature is 42 percent women, according to the National Conference for State Legislatures.

Vermont has women in positions of power and influence in both its House and Senate. Of the 15 House committees, eight are chaired by women, including the sought-after committees of Agriculture, Appropriations, Education, Ways and Means, and Government Operations. In the Senate, women head up four of the 11 committees, including Appropriations, Health and Welfare, Institutions, and Government Operations. There are women at high levels in civil service and on the staffs of the state’s elected representatives.

When it comes to women running for and taking the reins of leadership in state, Vermont has not lagged. Sexism, insisted a number of people interviewed for this article, does not seem to play an overt role in Vermont politics.

“I never get that feeling. I just don’t think it’s an issue,” said state Rep. Patti Komline, a Republican from Dorset who served for five years as both minority leader and assistant minority leader in the Vermont House.

Why, then, has Vermont not vaulted that last hurdle?

Incumbency

The main impediment to a woman (or a man, for that matter), who wants to seek national office from Vermont seems to be the value the state has long placed on incumbency.

There is a bottleneck of federal lawmakers in place who show no signs of stepping down; and there’s no one who suggests that they should. The current Vermont delegation consists of Sens. Patrick Leahy, 72, a Democrat, and Bernie Sanders, 71, an Independent; and Rep. Peter Welch, 65, a Democrat.

Vermont is also one of seven states to have just three seats in Congress: two Senate seats and one at-large House seat. (The other states are Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and Delaware). This clearly limits the number of candidates, although, with the exception of Delaware, the other five small-population states have already elected women to Congress.

Leahy was elected in 1974 and has never really faced a serious challenge from any candidate. He is now the longest-serving senator in Congress, and is president pro tempore of the Senate and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, both powerful positions.

Sanders was Vermont’s representative in the U.S. House from 1991 through 2006, when he was elected to the Senate seat that had been vacated by a retiring James Jeffords, who himself had served in the U.S. House from 1975 through 1988; and then in the Senate from 1989 through 2006.

When the House seat opened up in 2006, Welch ran for it against Republican Martha Rainville, then the Vermont National Guard adjutant general. He won, taking office in 2007. There’s an obvious pattern, as there is in many states, of the House representative choosing to run for the Senate, once a seat is available, and winning it. This, in turn, further narrows the field of possible candidates.

“In Vermont, once you get in you tend to stay there,” said state Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, who chairs the Senate Committee on Institutions. “I think it’s more coincidental that no woman has been elected,”

Bryan calls it “tombstone recruitment.”

“Once you’re re-elected you’re almost never defeated,” he said.

“Vermont has never unseated a U.S. senator in our history,” said former Republican Gov. Jim Douglas, who served from 2003 through 2010, and now teaches political science at Middlebury. Leahy and Sanders, Douglas pointed out, have the third highest aggregate seniority in the Senate.

“With incumbency, as a rule, goes clout and power,” Douglas said, “and, of course, incumbents are also less likely to be defeated in the governorship.”

Only two women have run against any of the current Vermont delegation, wrote former Speaker of the House Gaye Symington in an email. Symington served 12 years as a Democrat in the Legislature and was defeated in her run for governor against Douglas in 2008.

Susan Sweetser challenged Sanders for the House seat in 1996, and Rainville ran against Welch; Leahy has never faced a woman candidate, Symington wrote. Although the relative paucity of women candidates for a congressional seat might indicate that, when it comes to national office, the two parties in Vermont have been reluctant to field women, Symington attributed the gap to voters’ allegiance to the incumbents, “and the limited number of times that these positions are open, not voters’ discomfort with women in leadership.”

And, with a population of 626,000, which makes Vermont the second least-populated state after Wyoming, to have a delegation that wields considerable muscle is not something to be traded away lightly, said state Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, who heads the House’s Government Operations Committee. “Seniority ranking is so important for a small state like us.”

“We do know our politicians from the country store,” said Liz Bankowski, who ran Madeleine Kunin’s gubernatorial campaign and co-chaired Gaye Symington’s run for governor. She lives in Brattleboro. “We cross paths with them. That does something. These are people you come to feel you know,” she said, which makes it less likely that voters will want to turn them out.

But when a seat does become free (and no one is willing to speculate when that might be) what would need to happen for a woman from Vermont to be elected to Congress? And, as long as a representative represents the will of the electorate and ably serves her or his constituents, does gender really matter?

Equal Representation

“Yes, it does matter,” said Billi Gosh, a Brookfield, Vt., resident who has been a member of the Democratic National Committee since 2005. “We’re not equally represented and we should be. We need to address this issue in Vermont and a number of women have been talking about it.”

“A legislative body is best when it represents the public and obviously half the population is women,” said Douglas. “But whether (having a Vermont woman in Congress) would make any difference over time? Who knows? Women are across the ideological spectrum just as men are.”

Women rightly resist the implication that they seek office to represent only women. “I’m a legislator who happens to be a woman. I don’t take on women’s issues, per se,” Komline said.

Nor can you assume that you can discern gender in how final bills are written or what’s in them, said Bryan. “I’ve done roll call analysis on that and it’s amazing how sexless a lot of legislative policy is.”

It’s also a fallacy, said Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, “that only women can represent the interests of women,” a point echoed by Komline. Male politicians are keenly aware, Komline said, of the importance of securing the votes of women, who, since 1984, have turned out in greater number than men to vote in presidential elections, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. “Men understand that women are paying attention,” Komline said.

On the flip side, her gender was not the reason she lost, said Martha Rainville, who now lives in Alexandria, Va., where she is chief operating officer for Civil Support International, a consulting group started by her husband, former Pennsylvania Rep. Paul McHale, that advises on issues of national security.

Rather, she said, it was the unpopularity in Vermont of the Iraq war, and the efforts of the Democratic party to link any Republican candidate to President Bush’s foreign policy, that ultimately weakened her candidacy.

“That would have had an effect whether (the candidate) was a woman or man,” she said. “I don’t think (gender) matters to Vermonters, they’re really looking at who you are and what you stand for.”

“I never believe you should vote for a woman because she’s a woman,” Kunin said, “but I do think we should encourage women.” There is no shortage of qualified women in Vermont who could run for national office, she added, but then pointed out, “I also think we haven’t made an effort and I think it’s time to actually make an effort.”

Kathy Hoyt, who lives in Norwich and was chief of staff for Democratic Gov. Howard Dean, as well as holding other top positions in state government over the years, recalled that in the early 1990s she thought about challenging Sanders when he ran for his second term in the U.S. House.

She was dissuaded from doing so by some other Democrats, she said, who feared Hoyt would take votes away from him and that the “spot would go to a Republican. When I started getting lobbied not to run it dawned on me I didn’t have the energy or the money to put into the race.”

Hoyt doesn’t attribute the anxiety about her putative run to bias against her as a woman but to concern that she would hurt Sanders’ chances. Those same people, she said, later apologized to her and in retrospect she’s glad she didn’t run because, she said, “it just wouldn’t have made sense for my family.”

But as Hoyt looks over the Connecticut River to New Hampshire and its female delegation, she is of two minds. On one hand, she said, “it’s hard to argue that somebody should just go because it’s time for a different perspective.” On the other hand, Hoyt added, “it’s pretty amazing the depth of leadership that you see (in New Hampshire). ... There was something there that was done right and we ought to try to sort out what it was.”

The Pipeline

What has made the difference in the outcome for New Hampshire? One obvious factor, said Fowler, is “we just have a lot of turnover in New Hampshire. Even a very well-respected senator like Warren Rudman, he could have been our Leahy. People of both parties liked him but he chose to retire after two terms.”

New Hampshire’s more prominent role in national politics may also be a factor. It still boasts bragging rights as the host of the nation’s first presidential primary every four years, and it has gone from being a Republican stronghold to becoming a swing state, which means its votes are usually in play.

New Hampshire’s four electoral votes went to Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, to John Kerry in 2004 and to Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Its two House seats went Democratic in 2006, but seesawed to the Republicans during the 2010 mid-term elections. “New Hampshire-ites are more likely to throw (legislators) out. Vermonters like who they have representing them,” Kunin said.

Given that no one can predict when a seat will become available in Vermont, is either party doing what it should to advance women to the point where they have the experience and credentials necessary to make a run for Congress?

“Is there a woman in Vermont” asked Fowler, “who’s well-positioned to go after the open seat that’s going to emerge in the Senate and the House?”

She ticked off the qualities that make candidates attractive to the “political elites” who can anoint them: money, name recognition, and position in stepping-stone offices like state legislatures, the legal system or business.

“Women have to get in those positions where they get an affirmative response,” Fowler said.

It also takes the ambition and a long-term plan, said Bankowski. Money, which used to be a considerable barrier, is no longer an insuperable obstacle because of organizations such as Emily’s List, which raises money for Democratic women ruuning for office who support abortion rights. “We’ve got a lot of talented women in the pipeline and I think we’ll have no shortage of women when the seats open up,” said Deb Markowitz, who as Vermont secretary of state, from 1998 to 2011, organized the Vermont Women’s Leadership Initiative, which identifies and promotes women for elective office.

Along with three other candidates, Markowitz ran for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2010 against Peter Shumlin, and ran what is considered by others to have been a credible race against him. Once in office, Shumlin appointed her secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

Others are not so sure the conditions for women in political life are as favorable as they could be in Vermont.

“Our work in advancing a woman up the career ladder has not caught up with the opportunity to serve in public life,” said state Rep. Sarah Buxton, a Democrat who represents Royalton and Tunbridge and who won a second term to the Vermont House in November. Sexism still exists, either in the form of casual comments or in the power structure itself, she observed.

This observation is echoed by state Sen. Diane Snelling, daughter of former governor Richard Snelling and former lieutenant governor Barbara Snelling, and a Republican representing Chittenden County. She was appointed by Gov. Howard Dean in 2002 to fill out her mother’s Senate term when she retired, and has since won re-election six times.

Snelling said she would consider running for national office. “Absolutely, I would. I did think about it eight years ago but I simply hadn’t had enough experience in the Legislature at that time to really feel prepared.”

There are a host of considerations that come into play, she said. A candidate has to be able to speak in a compelling way on a number of issues, amass a king’s ransom to even be in the game, be able to withstand the slings and arrows that will inevitably come her way and understand that in a voracious news cycle traditional notions of privacy have evaporated.

However, Vermont Democrats have been vigorous about recruiting women to run for office, she said, while the state Republican Party “hasn’t been particularly open to women and women’s issues. I am of this party as an extension of my parents and what they were able to do. But I hit up against all the litmus tests for the Republican Party and don’t meet them. I am pro-choice, I am an adamant feminist, and I’m in favor of same-sex marriage.”

And without that base, it becomes more difficult to go forward, she said. “Who’s the core of people saying it should be Susie this time; no, Joe, you stay back. How does someone make themselves the favored party?”

Women and Power

So how do women rise to political power? How does the power structure hinder or help them? What are the cultural assumptions about how women should behave? This last is a formidable barrier, and, yes, it comes from men. But more significantly, said some of those interviewed, it comes from women themselves.

Women weigh factors like family and children when deciding whether to seek office. They look at their age, the timing, their suitability, their qualifications and experience. And despite the gains women have made, Bankowski said, women still “don’t assume their place in the line the way men do. Men wake up and say, ‘Oh, I think I’ll run for governor or Congress.’ Every woman I’ve dealt with in my long professional life has asked, ‘Do I have the credentials?’ No man asks that question.”

Such uncertainties can be overcome, said Kunin. When she entered the political scene in Burlington in the early 1970s, Kunin benefited from the prodding of Esther Sorrell, mother of Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell. “(She) was a mentor to me and really encouraged me in terms of jumping into the fray. She said, ‘You can do it.’ ”

Buxton, now in her early 30s, recalled that when he was in her third year at Vermont Law School, one of her professors asked her what she was going to do after graduation. Buxton was weighing different work offers, among them a chance to work on Shumlin’s gubernatorial campaign.

Although she’d contemplated seeking state office and had already acted as an adviser on several campaigns, she assumed she would wait until she was around 40, married and with children. “I don’t think I know enough, I need to learn more,” Buxton remembered saying when the professor suggested she run.

“Are you kidding?” the professor said, citing the work she’d already done in the state and in Washington on political campaigns. Buxton ran in 2010, and won by one vote.

Buxton, who was elected to her second term last fall, said women are still perceived as being too assertive or not assertive enough. “You talk about being ambitious and it’s still seen as a detriment. ... I am ambitious because I think I have more to offer.”

Symington has seen campaigns from the inside, as a candidate, and from the outside, as an observer and adviser. “The women candidates I worked with tended to really need or appreciate or gain from ... outreach,” she said.

But running for national office is at another level, Symington continued. “It’s very different and you really need that personal ambition. You really need something inside you to get you through ... what is a pretty grueling solo venture. It’s not that women can’t do that, but I don’t know if it’s that attractive to them.”

Congress vs. Lice

The current disrepute of Congress doesn’t help attract candidates, male or female. According to a recent Public Policy poll, Congress now has a favorability rating of 9 percent, placing it below lice, colonoscopies and Donald Trump, although it managed to eke out a small advantage ahead of the Kardashian clan, John Edwards, meth labs and the ebola virus. (Unexplained is the fact that in large measure the American public re-elects the same people to office year after year.)

“Why would you want to leave a state and government where you can do good work and be of value to go to a place like D.C., a place that is broken?” said Buxton. When she worked for an Ohio congresswoman in Washington, she said, she saw ample, disillusioning evidence of both dysfunction and the way that money greases the wheels of politics. “Money was ruling everything and that was the game we were playing.”

“I think most of us like being in Vermont and don’t necessarily want to go to Washington,” Sweaney said. Despite differing governing philosophies, she said, the two parties in Vermont are still able to pass bipartisan legislation. The idea of going to Washington, where public discourse often seems aimed at the lowest common denominator, does not appeal to her, or to many others.

“The answer to that,” said Rainville, “is that it’s never going to change unless people who really care and want to change things run for office.”

It’s discouraging, she said, to look at a legislator like moderate Republican Olympia Snowe, of Maine, who retired at the end of 2012 after 33 years in both the House and the Senate, citing the acrimonious tone of Congress. “It’s time for people to really think about what they need to do and look at the system,” Rainville said.

“I don’t know how you rehabilitate the political process so you make it attractive for people to pursue,” Hoyt said. “The thrill to me of being involved was that I could find ways to get people to work together to get things done. If I were facing a complete lack of interest ... it would drive me crazy.”

This is precisely why interested candidates should run, Symington argued.

“When I think of the laundry list of reasons why people don’t run — I don’t know enough, I don’t like speaking in public, I don’t like conflict — if we leave the running for office to people who do like to hear themselves talk and do like conflict, then we get what we deserve. We get what we’ve got,” Symington said. “Despite our misgivings it’s important for thoughtful citizens to step up to the plate and run for office.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.