BRATTLEBORO—Former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin says she has been talking about the need for women to assuming a greater role in governance since the 1970s.
“We really need to be there when issues are talked about,” she said at a Sept. 19 fundraising event at the Catherine Dianich Gallery.
Having women be there at every level of government is the mission of EmergeVT, the local chapter of Emerge America, a nonprofit that trains female Democratic Party candidates in 16 states to run for public office.
EmergeVT has been around for only a few years, but the list of its graduates who have gone on to win local and state races is growing.
Former Brattleboro Selectboard member Donna Macomber is one of them. She is now the chair of Emerge Vermont.
“I really believe that women hold a unique power to provide leadership in a humane way,” Macomber said.
Eleven of Emerge’s alumnae are on the 2016 ballot in Vermont, including incumbent state Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, who is running for her second term.
Balint recounted a story of an impromptu reunion in Washington this summer of a group of her friends from her high school years. She remembered how all of them were part of her campaign team when she ran as Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro during a mock presidential election at her school in 1984.
Even then, Balint said she realized that a candidate needs “people behind you who believe in you” and “strong male allies to build coalitions and alliances.”
Balint noted that only 2 percent of Americans run for elected office at any level of government, “yet our elected officials are still overwhelmingly white, male, and college-educated.”
Even in Vermont, while the state Legislature is 40 percent female, Vermonters have never sent a woman to the U.S. House or Senate and have elected only one woman — Kunin — as their governor.
The numbers are even lower at the local level. Only 20 percent of Selectboard members in Vermont are women.
“We don’t have parity yet,” Balint said. “We’re just trying to carve out space, and it is viewed by some as taking too much power.”
Balint said she agreed with the late author Anaïs Nin when she wrote, “How wrong is it for a woman to expect the man to build the world she wants, rather than to create it herself?”
Kunin agreed. “We can’t live our lives through surrogates,” she said.
Yet when women try to take their rightful place in democracy, Kunin said, they are still “judged differently than men.”
She offered the current presidential election as an example, and cited a recent report from The Pew Center that found that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton got 10 times more negative press coverage than Republican nominee Donald Trump.
Breaking down the sexism in public life takes time, and much progress has been made. But Kunin said it still rankles her that only Vermont and Mississippi have never sent a women to the U.S. House.
“That’s not good company to keep,” she said.
She acknowledged the popularity of Vermont’s current all-male Congressional delegation of Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch. But sooner or later, Kunin said, they will retire and she wants the Democrats to field strong female candidates to replace them.
“We need to build up our farm team so we have good candidates and are ready to go when those seats open up,” she said.