A new organization established to bring Democratic women into politics in Vermont is a signal that the left does not intend to cede the grass roots to the Tea Party right.
It’s not as if Democrats in Vermont are exactly on the ropes. To the contrary, Republicans in Vermont are the ones who could use a grass-roots boost. But the emergence of Emerge Vermont is a sign that Democrats are not satisfied basking in their majority and women are not satisfied languishing in the minority.
Discontent at the grass roots has transformed politics in the past few years. The economic collapse of 2008 caused hardship for millions of people, and conservatives were quick to capitalize. The emergence of Tea Party groups focused people’s anger on the federal government, with the result that Democrats suffered a historic reversal in the elections of 2010. With a radical Tea Party faction maintaining its paralyzing grip on the U.S. House, we are still paying the price.
The Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 and 2012 raised the hopes of liberals that a grass-roots movement on the left would serve as a counterweight to the Tea Party. But Occupy remained hampered by the unwillingness of activists to create lasting organizations, establish recognized leaders or involve themselves in the grungy business of politics. Thus, Occupy evaporated in a cloud of self-indulgence and fatuous anarchism.
Emerge Vermont is an offshoot of Emerge America, which was formed in 2005 in San Francisco for the purpose of helping Democratic women. Women in Vermont have already established a long history of successful leadership, and support from the new organization ought to enhance their prospects.
The most prominent female politician in Vermont’s history has been Madeleine Kunin, who served as governor from 1985 to 1991. Her inauguration in 1985 had a celebratory air akin to the joy that attended the inauguration of President Obama in 2009. Everyone knew that history was being made, and Kunin’s election ushered in a new era of participation by women.
And yet women are not influential within the Democratic Party alone. One of the pioneering women in Vermont politics was Consuelo Bailey, a conservative Republican who became the nation’s first elected female lieutenant governor in 1955. Later, Republican Barbara Snelling also served as lieutenant governor. A Republican woman, Ruth Dwyer, ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2000. More recently Republican women have assumed leadership roles in the Legislature. They include Patti Komline, Heidi Sheuermann and Peg Flory.
But the Democratic Party is home to an abundance of female politicians, who have assumed the leadership of several influential committees. Kunin has long maintained that women are more responsive to crucial issues of social justice and family welfare and for that reason it is important for women to be well represented. She noted that the Vermont House has a higher percentage of female members than all states except Colorado — 40 percent — but that Vermonters have never sent a woman to the U.S. House or Senate. She said women are also underrepresented on local boards.
It is an advantageous time for female Democrats to involve themselves in politics. The nation is awakening to the toll of inequality and poverty on children and families, and as voters search for solutions, they are likely to turn to candidates who can show an understanding of issues related to human welfare. If Emerge Vermont can persuade Democratic women to take on these issues, it may have an effect more far-reaching and lasting than any number of Occupy demonstrations.
Politics is not easy for anyone, and women face unique pressures. Kunin has described her challenges in making her male colleagues and voters take her seriously as a candidate and in fighting the daily battles of the political life. Since her life in politics ended, she has spoken out on the importance of female participation. The creation of Emerge Vermont ought to further that cause.
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