By Tela Zasloff
In this coming year of Presidential politics, the Democratic, Republican and Green parties each has a woman candidate running, and chances are promising that we have our first woman President in 2016. This bodes well for the status of women in our political system but has been a long time coming, since 1920, when Congress ratified the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote. The statistics on women in our national political system are still surprisingly low: The US 114th Congress, considered one of the most diverse in our history, is comprised of 20 percent women and about 17 percent non-white members, meaning that four out of five members are white men. How is the Massachusetts legislature doing in representing women, in comparison to both the US Congress and to the other 49 States?
This question was in the background of a Nov.6 event at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA), organized by State Representative Gail Cariddi, in which area women described their community service and concerns to eight members of the Massachusetts Caucus of Women Legislators [iBerkshires.com]. Compared to the other, 49 States, MA has 25.5% women in its legislature (out of 200 seats, 40 in the Senate and 160 in the House). Colorado ranks first, at 42% women (out of 100 seats) and Vermont second, at 40.6% (out of 180 seats). Representative Cariddi pointed out, in opening the meeting, that in the whole history of the MA legislature, founded as the General Court of MA in 1780 by the State constitution (John Adams, author), there have been only 190 women legislators compared to 20,000 men. It’s been worse for minority women. Representative Gloria Fox, D-Roxbury, is Women’s Caucus co-chair and currently the only African-American woman serving in the House.
But the focus of the women addressing the Caucus members on Nov.6 was not the statistics on women legislators. These local women are working on issues in social service, job creation, education, substance abuse, medical and family care, the environment, security forces, farming and the arts. They are working, as both experienced professionals and volunteers, to build a better community here in the Berkshires. The range and depth of their descriptions and stories were impressive and heartening because they demonstrated that progress is happening in our area. There were accounts of dealing with prevention and treatment of the local heroin epidemic, of supporting the bills at the State level that protect our environment, of providing training for women in a wider range of jobs (working as a pipefitter, was one example) and pushing for equal pay, of health education especially to handle teenage pregnancy, of providing transportation and child care for women to get to work, of providing housing that’s really affordable to people on low income, support for women who want to start small businesses and sustainable farms, of supporting the infrastructure of the area towns. Cariddi characterized the general effect: “I think they heard a lot of good stuff here today, a lot of enthusiastic and smart ladies came out to talk. I’m very proud of my constituents, they spoke intelligently, they spoke from the heart, and I think what they spoke about was definitely what legislators want to hear.”
But the general issue of women in politics was not ignored. One woman activist spoke eloquently about the need to seek out more strong and informed women to run for public office, and to train them on running campaigns and building constituencies. A recent statement by Jennifer Browdy, the founding director of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers and professor at Bard College, supports this move: “Here in the U.S., we’re fortunate that women have access to education at every level, and protection from discrimination in the workplace. But still, in subtle ways that we women ourselves often reinforce, women’s voices tend to be quieter in public. We women need to overcome the conditioning that keeps us quiet. And men need to become more mindful of the women in the room, doing their part to welcome women into dialogue.”