Let’s avoid gender-based dog whistles this campaign season

  • Jan 3, 2022
  • Elaine Haney

A recent commentary in VTDigger advised Vermont voters to remember to think about the issues in the upcoming Congressional election. It warned voters not to treat elections “like coronations, entitlements, or political beauty pageants.”

The commentary never mentioned that the current Vermont US House race has two candidates—both women. But the gender-based dog whistle was incredibly loud.

Apparently, when women enter an important race we must be reminded that we shouldn’t use criteria such as gender when deciding who to vote for. The implication is that if there were more men in the race we wouldn’t need this warning.

The fact that Vermont has never sent a woman to Congress is not an inconvenient truth we should just throw our hands up about. It is a fact, a shortcoming, that must be addressed and rectified. Never having a woman from Vermont serve as a U.S. Representative or Senator means Vermont women have not been represented in Congress for 230 years.

It’s also indicative of a larger problem: that women are underrepresented at all levels of Vermont government. Since 1791 Vermont has had only 14 women serving in elected statewide office and legislative leadership: four Speakers of the House, one Senate Pro Tem, three Treasurers, two Secretaries of State, four Lieutenant Governors, and one Governor. Our Legislature, while among the top ten states with the highest percentage of women legislators, is still only 41.7% women. And UVM’s Center for Research on Vermont recently reported that Vermont’s selectboards are composed of only one-third women.

The commentary suggests that voters use a “blind audition,” like orchestras do, to decide who to vote for in the Congressional race. This dismisses the reality that Vermont women are underrepresented in local, state, and federal government. It suggests that equal representation is unimportant.

It also makes assumptions about women candidates’ ability to address the issues. Worrying about how voters will vote because there are women in the race and reminding them about the issues implies that the women in the race won’t address the issues, don’t have the experience to address the issues, and that they must prove they are capable of even thinking about them. And it overlooks the fact that both current candidates have strong positions on the issues.

Comparing voting to an orchestra’s blind audition also disrespects the experience, leadership, hard work, and expertise of the women currently in the race. Vermont voters are extremely fortunate to have a choice between candidates of the caliber of the two women who are currently running to be our next U.S. Representative.

Let’s not default to gender-based dog whistles because women are running for Congress. Let’s celebrate the fact that Vermont women are making progress, however slowly, towards gaining equal representation at all levels of government. Let’s take this unprecedented opportunity to not only elect a highly qualified candidate but also begin to rectify a centuries-old problem and begin to redress the underrepresentation of Vermont women in all levels of government.