Senator Patrick Leahy’s long-anticipated announcement this week of his retirement is the catalyst for what will be a whirlwind election cycle in 2022. This vacancy at the highest level of political leadership will have a cascading effect down the ballot, as politicians all over Vermont play a game of 3-D chess to determine what office they will run for next.
But one thing is clear: Vermont must elect a Democratic woman to represent us in Congress.
We must elect a Democrat because the balance of power in the U.S. Senate is at stake. It is critical that a Democrat be sent to Congress to maintain the precarious majority currently in place – a majority that has succeeded, in spite of enormous opposition, in passing legislation like the recent infrastructure bill that will benefit our country and Vermont for generations to come.
We must elect a Democratic woman because for too long Vermont women have not been represented in Congress, and until recently have been represented very little in state leadership.
Women make up just over half of Vermont’s population, but have rarely seen themselves reflected in our government. Since our state’s founding in 1791, Vermont has had four women Speakers of the House, one woman Senate Pro Tem, two woman Secretaries of State, three woman Treasurers, four woman Lieutenant Governors, and one woman Governor.
Some have said we must understand that Vermont is a small state, with a small delegation, so it’s simply that the math doesn’t work. But that math is a result of people making choices. Throughout our state’s history choices have been made at every level, from the individual voter to our political parties to our entire political system, to exclude women from the political process. It’s time for us to choose differently.
I’ve also been reminded that women have had the right to vote for only the last 102 years, so they weren’t able to run for office before 1919. We must look past these historical justifications, which brush aside the fact that Vermont women have not been properly represented in state or federal government for 230 years. In the century since women’s suffrage only 14 women have served in statewide office in Vermont. That’s history that shouldn’t be ignored.
Vermont voters have been choosing more reflective representation in recent years, and our state has benefited greatly from the introduction of women’s voices into state government. Trailblazer Madeleine Kunin as our first woman governor in 1985 appointed Vermont’s first woman State Supreme Court justice, increased the number of women in government positions from 20% to 40%, and created both our family court system and the Dr. Dynasaur program.
Governor Kunin’s leadership paved the way for more strong women to get elected, like former Lt. Governor Barbara Snelling and former Speakers Gaye Symington and Mitzi Johnson. Before Governor Kunin’s election in 1985, only two other women, Secretary of State Helen Burbank in the late 1940’s and Speaker of the House and Lt. Governor Consuelo Bailey in the 1950s, had ever served in statewide office.
Vermont is slowly but purposefully addressing its lopsided representation. Currently there are several Democratic women serving in elected office at the highest levels of state government: Speaker Jill Krowinski, Senate Pro Tem Becca Balint, Treasurer Beth Pearce, and Lt. Governor Molly Gray. Currently 76 women serve in the General Assembly, making Vermont 8th in the country for the number of women serving in state legislatures.
This group of highly qualified, dedicated Democratic women in senior leadership is bringing to life policies and programs that have enormous positive impact on Vermonters. Investments in expanded childcare, broadband, housing, clean water, and climate change made during the last legislative session alone — made while governing during a pandemic — will benefit Vermonters far into the future.
Since Senator Leahy’s announcement it’s been noted in the media all over the country that Vermont has never sent a woman to Congress. There’s general surprise that a state so well known for its forward thinking, progressive accomplishments can be so behind the times in this one instance. It’s time for Vermont to step fully into the 21st century, to commit to better representing women in government, and to maintain the crucial Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate. It’s time to elect a Democratic woman to represent us in Congress in 2022.