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A front-page headline from the Aug. 27, 1920 issue of the Brattleboro Reformer and the signed joint resolution for the 19th Amendment, preceding ratification by the required 36 states.

Voices / Opinion roundup

What women bring to the table

On the anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote, women politicians from Windham County discuss the legacy of suffrage and what a diversity of involvement in the political process means for all of us

Tennessee voters ratified the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution on Aug. 18, 1920, and its certification on Aug. 26 made it official: States and the federal government could not deny the right to vote on the basis of sex. While decades would pass before women of color would practically be afforded their due voting rights, the suffrage movement enfranchised 26 million women.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of this milestone, John Hagen, president of the Windham County Democrats, proposed a nonpartisan series of interviews of women from our region in politics at all levels. Commons Reporter Olga Peters stepped up and interviewed 13 county politicians (including two independent state representatives), ranging from a local Selectboard member to the incoming majority leader of the state Senate.

Following are brief excerpts from these conversations, edited for space and clarity, which convey a collective snapshot of the range of topics that came into focus in these interviews. The full videos can be found on the Windham County Democrats’ Facebook page at facebook.com/windhamdemocrats.

Jeanette White

State senator (D–Windham County)

There really are three areas to touch on here. One is women in the field of politics itself. The second is the general area of leadership and influence, and the third is how those all affect the issues. I’ll try to weave these themes together.

Among people who vote, women tend to vote more than men. This is true in every age group. It’s probably because they had to fight for the right to vote, so they’re more committed to it. But close to half of them still do not vote. Young women and men both vote less often than people over 45.

Although the voting rates are relatively high in presidential-election years, in off years, the rate often dips to almost 20 percent of registered voters.

That, along with the fact that only 21 percent of Selectboard members in Vermont are women, points out the need for us to think about how women need to be more involved in serving in their own local communities. And then rethinking about influence and leadership allows us to look at other areas where we need to make progress.

We should not be pigeonholing either men or women. For example, no one has more influence on kids than early-education and elementary teachers. Yet, it’s still unusual to see males in those roles. If kids will see themselves in a true diverse setting, we’ll be more likely to have more diversity, including in political leadership.

Adding new voices always changes the way we look at the issues. After the 19th Amendment was ratified, we saw a dramatic increase in funding for education and health care. These issues don’t just affect women, they affect everybody. But adding that new voice increased the interest in funding for such areas.

Of course, women do not all think alike on issues. Just because a woman is in a position of power does not mean a better outcome and we can see that being a woman doesn’t make for better outcomes. (Think Betsy deVos.)

But right or wrong, women have always kind of been seen as peacemakers. So regardless of their position on the issues themselves, they can influence the level of civility and respect that we see dwindling all of the time. I think that is a positive impact.

Michelle Bos-Lun

Democratic Party nominee for state representative (Windham-4)

If you look back 100 years, we went from women having no opportunity to share our voice or to take leadership roles in the government to at least some of us — and, over time, more of us — having that opportunity. But lots of women don’t exercise that right to vote.

In terms of having political power, if you don’t vote, your voice is not being represented. So to me, the get-out-the-vote effort among all population members, and women in particular — that’s really important.

The second issue that is really important is fighting injustice.

The day after the inauguration of the current inhabitant of the White House [in 2017], I was with three busloads of people from Putney who went down to Washington for the Women’s March. We joined about a million people, mostly women, saying, “There is an awful lot that you represent that is wrong, and we won’t stand for it.”

In the United States, and in Vermont to a certain degree, people, many of whom are women, are trying to make a more just country, a more just state. In Vermont, dozens of rallies have supported Black Lives Matter and changing the situation with the police and trying to work towards more justice, not only in how police deal with people, but in the system of incarceration. That’s absolutely critical.

Those of us who are aspiring to be in a leadership role in politics need to remember that we have to look out for the interests of everyone. Many of us have done so most of our lives.

Women in the Legislature can bring that sense of trying to make a more just world. Certainly there are men who do that — 100 years ago, men ratified the 19th Amendment. Thank you! But an awful lot of women on the ground worked to make that happen.

So we must build coalitions of people who have not necessarily opposing but hopefully complementary interests, who can work toward bringing change, but particularly work towards bringing justice. We’ve gone backwards in many ways in the last four years.

Even in our state, our governor has vetoed raising the minimum wage for our lowest-paid workers. He vetoed the paid family and medical leave act. Those are issues that directly and disproportionately impact women.

We need leadership that’s going to embrace all of those issues that protect women, that protect those that are vulnerable in our society, and that try and build us together into a stronger collective.

Emilie Kornheiser

State representative (D-Windham-2-1)

I think the next step for women’s political power is to actually focus on what the majority of women need, locally, nationally, and globally. We really need to step back toward what enables women to navigate our society in a way that is whole.

We must return to issues of the burden of care — wage disparities, union membership in traditionally female professions, education, and the student loan burden — and issues of economic equity and family and reproductive equity.

Men have expectations for how they have to show up in power, and that’s true for women, too. I think a lot of women apologize for ending their sentences with a question mark, because it’s not considered decisive enough, even though there’s a lot of evidence showing that intonation actually brings more people into a conversation. I’ve been asked to apologize for just feeling confident in my voice or my opinion, though I hardly ever actually do.

So, yes, I think we’re still in a place where women are expected to apologize, but I would say that I think that’s also true for people of color, for men. I think we’re all apologizing for anything that deviates from the norm.

So what would it look like for none of us to have to do that? I think that would be a powerful conversation.

I also think we have an image of what the right female candidate looks like. Voters find it confusing with so many women in the lieutenant governor’s race this year, which is great, or even during my own primary last biennium with two women running. I worry that sometimes voters default to the most feminine of the women rather than choose the best candidate either on behalf of women or just on behalf of their own interest as a voter.

I also think it’s really important to remember, especially in our citizen legislature, when we think about economic equity for women, it means that for a single woman to be able to run, especially with a child, it is a very different scenario than for a single man, who likely would have more financial means available just within his own household.

When the economic position of women is so dependent on whether we are partnered with a man, that really has significant implications for the electorate as well as who’s able to serve in office.

Sara Coffey

State representative (D-Windham-1)

If we look back on the history of women and our struggle for the right to vote, it gives us a lot of hope. The women’s suffrage movement was intertwined with the struggles for the right to vote for African Americans, the poor, immigrants, and Latinx, Native Americans, and others.

And it’s a complicated history. The right to vote did not happen overnight. There were lots of setbacks, a lot of collaboration, a lot of conflict, a lot of sexism and racism.

As we’re thinking about the moment that we’re in today, I find a lot of strength from looking back. And I do think that moving forward, the next step in vision is around racial equity: addressing systems of racism and economic equity across gender and race.

That’s where I really think that our current moment is connected to our past 100 years — and 50 years ago with the civil rights movement and the Equal Rights Amendment, several years ago in more recent history with the Women’s March on Washington, D.C.

I think we’re seeing so much of how we can come together and affect change. In Vermont, we might take it for granted that our state would have been a pretty forward-thinking state, but the women’s right to vote actually did not start on the East Coast. It started on the West Coast. Over time, it took 36 states to get the vote. And Tennessee was the 36th state on Aug. 18, 1920 — and that happened by one vote.

To achieve women’s right to vote required 56 referenda of male voters, 480 campaigns to legislators, 47 campaigns for women’s suffrage to state constitutional conventions, and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.

So when we talk about racial equity and changing our systems to be anti-racist systems, that’s where I feel so hopeful when I see so many people are coming together and raising their voices with the Black Lives Matter movement and white allies who have come out during this pandemic.

I hope that when we look back at this time in history, we will see as a time of real transformational change. After serving in the Legislature over the last two years, I’m a new believer and champion of incrementalism as a way of achieving more permanent and lasting change, and I think that we are at a moment where we’re looking at a lot of issues in our state Legislature and issues more broadly in our society.

Brenda Siegel

Activist and Democratic primary candidate for governor (2018) and lieutenant governor (2020)

We have to build a people’s lobby because, right now, the needs of people on the ground, people who are suffering the most, are not being met meaningfully.

And we really want our communities to not only survive, but thrive. We need to infuse marginalized leaders, whether it be women or Black and Brown folks, Indigenous folks, LGBTQIA people into different layers of leadership inside our administrations so people with lived experience can help us find solutions to our problems.

On the ground in our communities, we also need to look differently at what we call experience, because the people who have faced the problems are the ones who can find the solutions.

I’m a single mom who’s struggling financially. When my son was little, there was no way I could have climbed the ladder, so to speak, to get to run for office. I couldn’t even be on a Selectboard because it didn’t pay anything and I wouldn’t have been able to afford child care. And my son needed me — I was already working many, many hours.

On top of that, the idea of being a state representative or senator is almost laughable. I couldn’t leave home for four months, even after my son became a teenager, because I wasn’t partnered.

Also, folks who are working minimum-wage jobs really can’t give up that work.

So you’re inherently keeping certain people out of elected office. We need to have a public finance system so that people who don’t necessarily have access to money are able to run for office and do so effectively. We also need to make sure that we are paying people enough to access the child care and support they need.

We really must figure out a way that our Legislature can actually be a citizen legislature. That term in Vermont is a little bit misleading — it’s not representative of the citizens in the state, and it can’t be.

Vermont sometimes tells itself a story about being progressive, when we actually haven’t had the changes that we really need to be able to call ourselves progressive.

It also tells itself a story about our progress around electing women and around electing people of color when, in fact, the first Black woman in our Legislature had to step down because of racist threats that she still experiences today, threats that I also experienced by proxy because I stood up for her and on account of my being Jewish.

We actually have to change that narrative.

I’ve been saying recently that I’ve been able to run for statewide office in part because of tools I was given as a child, because I grew up in an upper middle class family. If you’re able to bust through that wall because you have access to privilege and power and money, then you have to be honest about that. Because, otherwise, people who are struggling look at that and say, “What’s wrong with me?” And that just holds people down even more than we’ve already experienced in our lives.

Let’s show folks that people like us do have power and that we are prepared to lead.

Liz McLoughlin

Brattleboro Selectboard vice chair

Our next step is really what people are doing right now: women are running for office in Windham County and around the country, and then people have to vote for them.

Many of my colleagues were members of Emerge Vermont, which teaches women how to run for office because it’s much more natural in our culture for men to do so. Those cultural elements need to be brushed away so that women feel more comfortable in running. And it was very, very helpful to me in my elections.

How you get people to vote for women is really almost a more important question. If the best candidate in the world is a woman, people will say gender-specific terrible things about them.

In some ways, our country has to mature to understand that women can be effective leaders, like the women leaders around the world who were very decisive in addressing COVID-19. Women bring a lot to the table. I know, in my elections, people told me specifically, “I’m voting for you, because I want more womens voices on the Selectboard.” And I also know that there, especially in my first election, a lot of gray-haired people my age voted for me. In a sense, that’s identity politics.

Windham County is a bit of an aberration from the nation because we have so many great women — proven leaders — who are totally accepted. We’re not a post-racial society, but we’re also not a post-gender society. We need to get to the point where people are judged on their merits.

Mollie Burke

State representative (P/D-Windham-2-2)

Let’s remember the first woman who was elected to the Legislature in 1920, Edna Louisa Beard, whose beautiful portrait is hanging outside the Senate chamber in the State House.

She was the first and only woman that year to be elected and take her seat in the House of Representatives. Can you imagine? Apparently, it created quite an uproar. Nobody wanted to sit next to her.

Where are we going from here? I think it’s really interesting and significant that Molly Gray won the lieutenant governor’s primary election, which sort of catapults her to a higher level in terms of a possible governorship.

And with Emerge Vermont, which trains Democratic women to run for office, more and more women are running for office or are interested in doing so.

Women’s issues were once treated as unimportant, marginal issues, but now, issues of child care and paid family leave are in the spotlight. They’re really everybody’s issues.

I think that what women bring to the table is that awareness. Vermont has never had a woman in Congress, and there’s only been one woman governor and two women lieutenant governors; if Molly Gray wins the election, she would be the third.

We did pass paid family leave, but we were not able to override the governor’s veto. And we did pass a minimum wage bill. So I think that the conversation has changed and is evolving.

A lot of times, we’re talking now about our institutional barriers — the barriers that prevent women and people of color from having more power, from accessing power. I really see parallels here. And I think that the women’s movement has really sort of shown a way forward. Certainly the progress has not been completely on an upward trajectory.

I think this is a time to celebrate the people who fought for suffrage, despite what they endured, the kind of violence that they were subjected to, the kind of harassment they were subjected to. We really owe them a debt, and I think this is a time to pay homage to that debt and think about what they’ve made possible for us in this era.

Leslie Goldman

Democratic Party nominee for state representative (Windham-4)

A hundred years is a long time — a lot has happened.

When the 19th Amendment was first passed, I think there was hope that we would vote as a bloc for women’s issues — that really didn’t happen. It’s not really possible to clump all women into one group, because it could range from Phyllis Schlafly to Gloria Steinem. So women’s political power has spanned the spectrum.

If we look going forward and we look at our current Legislature, the leadership is really powerful. We have powerful women like Becca Balint, who’s poised to be Senate President Pro Tem, like Jill Krowinski as House Majority Leader, like Mitzi Johnson as Speaker of the House.

We have a lot of examples of women who are leading meaningfully and profoundly at the state level and who are great examples for women and girls. I love that.

Of course, now we have Kamala Harris — how great is that? — so now there’ll be an example of a woman at the vice presidential level and a woman of color, of course.

We have seen how women can take care of each other, thinking about reproductive rights and domestic violence. I think we support each other really well.

I think we need to talk more about health care, and I think reproductive rights needs to be embedded in how we talk about health care.

We’re not talking enough about child care. We’re not talking about family leave because women are frequently the ones who stay home and have to give up income to take care of family members. Violence against women — that’s another arena that we as a society need to really face.

I know that reproductive rights will be considered in the next session, and I think that needs really careful attention. And gosh, if we got a constitutional amendment, how cool would that be? That’s probably one of the best reasons to be in the Legislature this moment — to be able to vote for that.

Becca Balint

State Senator (D–Windham County); Senate majority leader

Because of the national conversation we’re having about race, I’ve been reading Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of our Discontents. We need to not just dismantle institutionalized racism, but dismantle the invisible caste system that has been at play here in this country. That will be the work of the next several decades.

You have a president who recently went right back to his racist playbook about Kamala Harris’s legitimacy as a vice-presidential candidate, bringing up his completely and totally unfounded birther-ism argument again; and he coupled that with his reference to her as being “nasty,” which is the kind of language he uses a lot for women, but most particularly around women of color.

Women of my generation — white, middle-aged women — as a voting bloc across the country made the difference for Trump’s presidency. You’ve got a situation right now where you have a woman of that same generation — an African American, Indian American woman — on the ticket, who I think is going to be able to reach across caste and reach across race and make the case.

But we, as white women, of my generation — this is the work we absolutely have to do. As white women who understand what it is to be oppressed for gender, we need to use our voices to dismantle the caste.

So that’s what I’m committing myself to in the rest of my life, not just my political career. I see it so clearly that this is a legacy we have to wrestle with.

If she wins her general election, Keisha Ram will be the very first woman of color ever to serve in the Vermont Senate. We have had an African-American community within Vermont, since the Colonial era. People need to see that it is possible for people of color to be in those positions of power.

And we signal that in all sorts of ways around language and legitimacy of who gets to be on town boards. We always joke about this sort of revolving seats, the same people that keep going around to all the boards. And I think this is a beautiful opportunity that we have to talk about both things at once.

I’ve been concerned over the last couple of election cycles to see so many roots of racism within the labor movement, where folks were rarely looking out for African-American rights within the union in the same way as as they did for those of white workers.

The early suffrage movement was about white women’s suffrage in the same way that the women’s movement in the ’60s and ’70s was about straight white women. There were concerted efforts to really weed queer women out of the conversation about rights.

The work ahead of us — to honor people for who they are and all of their contradictory experiences — is what I’m really pushing for, in being poised to be both the first woman to lead the Vermont Senate and also the first gay person to be in leadership within either chamber.

Carolyn Partridge

State representative (D-Windham-3)

We need to encourage women to actually vote. Unless you exercise your franchise, you don’t have a voice. And it’s imperative for women to have a voice. It’s the only way we’re going to gain more political power. I’ve seen any number of political races be decided by one vote — every vote does indeed count.

I fear that there are people in this country who do not understand the importance and the ability to vote. I also think that we should do everything we can to make sure that everyone, male or female, has the opportunity to vote and that their vote gets counted.

I’ve been pretty proud that in Vermont, we’ve had strong female representation in the House, at around 40 percent. I’d like to see that at 50 percent or 51 percent.

I’m really proud that our speaker, Mitzi Johnson, has chosen to appoint nine women as chairs of standing committees out of 14. So there is that that encouragement for women to take to take leadership roles, and that is fantastic.

When I started out, there weren’t as many women in the in the House. And as more and more of us — as mothers, as women who do not get equal pay — were elected, all these sorts of issues began to be talked about.

Right now, I look around the room in Montpelier when we’re there, and I see only a handful of people of color. Vermont is a very white state, but we’re very fortunate to have many new Americans from other countries coming to the state. I would like to see more representation of those folks in the House, in the Senate, and hear them use their voices.

Laura Sibilia

State representative (I-Windham-Bennington)

The next step for women should be the Equal Rights Amendment. But getting there, I think, is complicated, and it will require some interim steps at this point, given our political system.

We have this stalemate: Is the amendment valid to be ratified?

I think that probably the fastest way to get the ERA passed, if we had a functioning system, would be just to have Congress re-pass the bill, because there’s probably not majority opposition to it, and then have our states re-ratify it.

But our system is not functioning, because it plays to the extremes. If our system was working, it would be simple enough — I think most folks agree that we should all have equal rights. But our system is not really set up to work for the majority; it’s set up now to work for the extremes.

So the interim step to getting us to the ERA would be some democratic reforms to elevate the majority’s voice as opposed to just the most active voices.

I come from a place where I really think that people are basically good. And when they’re doing things that are not good, or that are painful, I tend to believe it’s because they don’t know any better.

So what are some mechanisms to help our system play more to the majority? And how can we get more people involved? How can we get more representative government?

Ranked-choice voting is something that basically requires a candidate to receive more than 50 percent of the vote in order to be elected. And it allows me to say, Well, if my first choice doesn’t get in, here’s my second choice. And if that one doesn’t get in, here’s my third. In this system, we can build some consensus.

To me, it’s so critical that we all exercise our rights as citizens — you know this, I know this — but I think people often mistakenly feel like it doesn’t matter. And these types of reforms really help illustrate why it does matter, and I think they would help people feel less disenfranchised.

Kelley Tully

State Representative (D-Windham-3)

We have to certainly understand where we came from in order to know where we’re going. I look at the 19th Amendment and the hard work of the women — even before 1920 there were a lot of pioneers out there. And I just think of their bravery and how they fought against a system that certainly didn’t include many people and did not include them as clear citizens with the right to vote.

I draw a lot of energy from all those people who came before us and fought really hard for this right for us to get out there and vote. Vermont currently has more women voters than men — I think that’s pretty impressive. And I hope that continues.

We need to continue to press forward on any marginalized group that doesn’t feel that they have that access, whether that feeling is real or perceived. We need to drag our neighbor with us to the polling, even if they worry they’ve never voted.

People really need to feel that they have a voice. And they might be afraid to take that first step or not even have the knowledge. That’s one of the things, even on a local level, that we can do for our neighbors, no matter whether they’re male or female, no matter what color they are. We can help them feel a part of the process and that they have a say.

Kelly Pajala

State representative (I-Windham-Bennington-Windsor)

Our next step is to elect leaders to state and federal positions who care about women’s issues, who care about access to reproductive rights, who care about child care, who care about families being able to earn a living and put food on the table.

I worry every day that the fabric of our democracy is fraying. And I think that real leadership is needed to pull things back together. With the election coming up, it’s really crucial that everyone make sure that they vote and that their vote gets to the hands of the people who make sure that it gets counted.

Not only do I get to cast my own ballot, but I also take great pride in being one of the people who makes sure that voters are able to cast their ballots and do so safely. That’s the piece of the town clerk’s job that has always meant the most to me and that I’ve always taken the most pride in and care with.

Good leadership is not being afraid to just say what needs to be said. Not being afraid to take a pause and think about what needs to happen. Being willing to listen to multiple perspectives, even if you have a strongly held conviction. Keeping your ears and your mind open.

We’re seeing leadership from the top suggesting that we delay elections, warning that ballots aren’t going to get returned to their precincts, and not funding the U.S. Postal Service so people can cast their vote. Every day I can’t believe what I’m seeing. It is shocking and worrisome. But elections are around the corner.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #577 (Wednesday, September 2, 2020). This story appeared on page C1.

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