• A cave no more
    November 16,2013

    For the first time ever, women will outnumber men among Democrats in the Vermont House.

    The gender majority shifted when Gov. Peter Shumlin appointed Marjorie Ryerson of Randolph to take the place of Rep. Larry Townsend, who died earlier this year. With Ryerson numbering among House Democrats, there will be 49 women and 47 men.

    One person who thinks this is a big deal is former Gov. Madeleine Kunin, who reminisced in an op-ed piece she wrote for the website vtdigger.org. She remembers the day she arrived at the State House in 1962 to testify before a House committee. Her baby was in a car bed, and she and a friend took turns caring for their infants. She recalls looking down from the House balcony to an assembled mass of old men — there were more than 200 of them back then. “Today we would call it a man cave,” she writes. “Then, it was called a male bastion.”

    Kunin herself played an important role in transforming Montpelier’s male bastion. She arrived as a Democratic member in 1973. Before many years she was chairwoman of the influential House Appropriations Committee, which raised her profile sufficiently for her to become lieutenant governor. In 1984 Vermonters elected her governor.

    It wasn’t easy to play the role of pioneer. The pressure to show competence exceeding that of her male colleagues was constant. She faced the additional burden of never appearing too soft or too hard.

    Some of the old guard added to her difficulties, as when Gilbert Godnick, senator from Rutland, complained without truth that she had shown up barefoot wearing a peasant blouse.

    She has a sense of humor about it now, but back then it was enormously stressful, especially as the stakes rose and she ran for governor.

    And yet women make a difference, in Kunin’s view.

    They are more sensitive to issues such as education, health care, child care and family leave. It was Kunin, after all, who had responsibility to nurse that baby in 1962 when she showed up to testify in Montpelier.

    Women have numbered among Republican leaders, both on the liberal and conservative ends of the spectrum. Consuelo Bailey was a conservative Republican who became Vermont lieutenant governor in the 1950s. A conservative Republican ran for governor in 2000.

    Internationally, women have shown they can be just as warlike as men — Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir were not shy about employing the military option when they saw fit. Catherine the Great made conquests of lands belonging to the Ottoman Empire. Elizabeth I of England was no softie.

    But the old boy’s club that Kunin observed in 1962 is a thing of the past. We are learning that issues such as child care and family leave, health care and education, are not only women’s issues.

    It may be that the preening and posturing, the combativeness and competition to which men are sometimes prone may be usefully diminished with the women there to observe the men’s silly behavior. Women are not unfamiliar with competitiveness, ambition and brazen politicking. Just ask Hillary Clinton. Indeed, it would be sexist to assume that women in power are there only to be nice and nurturing.

    But as Kunin observed, “Women ... appear to have lower levels of testosterone, which makes them more prone to bipartisanship and compromise.” Some of the most important committees in the House are chaired by non-posturing, hard-working, responsible women, the kind of politician for whom Kunin blazed a trail. In a time when dysfunction and division are the words commonly used to describe our politics, bipartisanship and compromise are welcome.

    If it is not unusual for men to hold a majority, then egalitarian politics suggests that women in the majority ought to be just as ordinary.

    But it’s not ordinary yet. When Marjorie Ryerson arrives in the State House in January, she and her fellow Democrats will have reason to smile.

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