We need more women serving at all levels of government

This commentary appeared online in VTDigger on October 13, 2021. 

As VTDigger’s recent panel discussion (“The future of Vermont’s congressional representation”) shows, the Vermont political universe is preoccupied these days wondering whether Senator Patrick Leahy will run for re-election and who will take his place. There’s no doubt that Vermont has been well served by him and his fellow members of the delegation, Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman Peter Welch. But it’s time to pass the baton, and it’s time for Vermont to elect a woman to Congress. A vacant Congressional seat would also open up new opportunities to serve at all levels of government. Right now, senior leadership at the statewide level is stagnant, with few openings for women, people of color, or young people to serve. 

There’s a similar kind of stagnation at the local government level. The Center for Rural Studies at the University of Vermont recently released a report indicating that two-thirds of Vermont’s selectboard members and three-quarters of our municipal managers are men. Two-thirds are over age 50 and almost half are over 60. Unsurprisingly, 97.5% are white. The monopoly on leadership held by older white men exists both statewide and locally, but at the local level there is far more room for change.

There are nearly 250 towns and cities in Vermont with locally elected boards. In my own unscientific research as executive director of Emerge Vermont, which recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office, I have found fewer than two dozen selectboards with a majority of women. And congratulations, Pittsfield! You appear to be the only town in all of Vermont at the moment with an all-woman selectboard. 

Why is it important to elect more women to local governing boards? It’s a matter of priorities.  The three top issues for municipalities identified by the respondents to the Center for Rural Studies survey were infrastructure, taxes, and lack of growth. Of the 227 respondents, only 35 identified education and childcare as top issues, and only 28 chose affordable housing and the opiate crisis.

Some may say that education, childcare, housing, and addiction are not the responsibility of municipalities to address. But if more women were in positions of leadership in our communities, then human-centered issues—the ones that impact families, children, and quality of life the most—would be much more top of mind for local leaders, and all of Vermont would see the benefit.

Why aren’t there more women in local government? One reason is that many women simply don’t see themselves as public figures. Women are less likely than men to run for office, and in general must be asked repeatedly—up to seven times—to run. Campaigning can be a daunting prospect. But more importantly, Vermont women are not going to serve on selectboards if they don’t see themselves represented on them, and if they are met with resistance once elected. I’ve heard from many women who have served on selectboards and dealt with microaggressions, covert and overt sexism, and old boy networks, but who persisted in spite of it. I’ve experienced it myself—being a woman on a majority-male selectboard is a lonely job.

But I’m optimistic. The number of women in local government is growing, in part because of successful training programs like Emerge Vermont’s, which is changing the tide, giving more women the tools, skills, and confidence to run and be elected. In fact, the application for our 2022 Signature Training is open right now and we’re looking forward to training another cohort of Vermont women preparing themselves to run for office. Since 2013 we have trained 149 women to run; 44 of our alumnae are serving in public office right now, with 24 in the State House and 20 in local elected or appointed positions. Newer programs like Bright Leadership Institute and Catalyst Leadership are providing training with a focus on people of color.   

Montpelier Mayor Anne Watson and selectboard members like Brattleboro’s Elizabeth McLoughlin and Bakersfield’s Brenda Churchill are just three Emerge Vermont alumnae demonstrating that women can and do lead their communities. And they’re not just public servants—they’re role models. Young Vermont girls can look to these women in their own communities and realize they too have a role and a future in government. It’s not just Vice President Kamala Harris’ job to be that example.

While it is up to our Congressional delegation to make the space to allow more women to serve at higher leadership levels in Vermont and nationally, it is up to all Vermonters to make space for women on our local governing boards—not just selectboards but also school boards, planning commissions, energy committees, and any other committee that exists to serve a community. We must welcome, invite, and seek the leadership of women in local government, where decisions are made every single day that directly impact the lives of Vermonters.

Elaine Haney of Essex Junction is a former chair of the Town of Essex Selectboard, former trustee of the Village of Essex Junction, and executive director of Emerge Vermont, an organization that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office at all levels of government.