Push to get more Vermont women in leadership roles paying off

For Vermont's government, the future looks female
Published: Aug. 1, 2022 at 6:19 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Polls show Vermont is likely to elect its first woman to Congress and advocates say it’s about time.

Lately, Vermont has taken significant strides toward equal representation of women in government. Just last week, Gov. Phil Scott appointed Jennifer Morrison as the first woman commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Safety. We’re witnessing this wave in all three branches of state government and in our own communities.

“I will be very different looking from the other prior commissioners and I probably will bring a different perspective, different experiences,” Morrison said.

Morrison brings Governor Scott’s cabinet-- which consists of secretaries of agencies and the commissioners of Financial Regulation, Labor, Public Safety, and Liquor and Lottery-- to 54% women.

Fifty-six percent of non-cabinet commissioners are women; Scott’s senior staff is 71% women.

This past legislative biennium, Vermont also had the most women at the Statehouse ever-- 41% of the state House and Senate, the 10th highest in the country.

We also saw the most women in legislative leadership positions ever, including the first-ever woman Senate president pro tempore.

Since 1791, only 15 women have served in statewide office and legislative leadership, a third of whom currently hold the positions: Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, House Speaker Jill Krowinski, Treasurer Beth Pierce, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and Attorney General Suzanne Young.

In the judicial branch, 40% of Vermont Supreme Court justices, 31% of Superior Court judges, 36% of probate judges, and 57% of assistant judges are female. The judicial branch as a whole is 42% women.

“It’s diversifying the representation at every level of government,” said Elaine Haney, the executive director of Emerge Vermont. “It’s taken a really long time.”

Haney says that’s because women haven’t historically had political role models.

Emerge Vermont recruits, trains and encourages Democratic women in office.

Haney says this trend began in the latter half of the 20th century, primarily since the 1980s when Madeleine Kunin was elected Vermont’s first and only female governor.

Haney attributes the uptick to a societal shift.

“Women were staying home, raising children, being homemakers or working from the home in a way that was very traditional, and politics was not seen as a place for women to get involved,” Haney said.

She says the normalization of women in office now means we can picture ourselves in those positions. Then in the ‘90s that positive progress stalled. That is until recent watershed moments like the #MeToo movement.

“As terrible as that was in many ways, it was really great because it made people think really concretely about what are the obstacles that women are facing,” said Cary Brown, the executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women.

Brown has been tracking these trends for years. She says within the last decade or so, women have been coming out of the woodwork for seats on library boards, planning commissions and city councils.

Right now, 33% of Vermont select board members are women.

Brown says it’s imperative to keep building a bench of women serving at the local level to advance them through a pipeline to higher office.

“I’m hopeful that we will see these numbers change even more in the future and that we’ll get to a point where we’re not even having conversations like this anymore, but we’ve still got a ways to go before that happens,” Brown said.

Brown and Haney say advancing women to local, state and national leadership translates to the advancement of policies that reflect the needs of Vermont’s 50% female population.

While lots of women have secured senior-level positions, heading powerful and important committees and boards and holding statewide offices, women still face a variety of challenges in the workplace, especially sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

In the past couple of years, the Vermont Commission on Women, Change the Story VT, the Vermont Women’s Fund and Vermont Works for Women have all partnered to develop a free, downloadable toolkit for employees to examine gender and racial equity in their company and compensation structures.

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