By Cynthia Richie Terrell on March 19, 2016
POMFRET— In her 16 years as a select board member, Dorothy Moore always served with two men.
“To work with her you’d think she was more of a man than a woman, she was quite a worker,” said former selectman Jim Havill, who served with Moore.
Moore was a dairy farmer and the owner of Moore’s Orchard. She was a no-nonsense kind of person.
“She understood equipment, so she could understand broken down trucks sometimes better than (the men) could,” said Hazel Harrington, former clerk and treasurer. “She was one of the guys — one of the three.”
Moore was elected to the select board in 1972 and served until she stepped down in 1988. Moore died in 1999.
No woman has served (or run for the board) since. Not until this year.
Two women, Melanie Williams and Sheila Hopkins, were elected to Pomfret’s select board last week, following the approval of expanding the select board from three members to five.
This is not unusual.
Women held about 20 percent of select board seats in Vermont last year, the Standard found after counting feminine names from a list provided by the Secretary of State’s office. The Rutland Herald found a similar statistic prior to Town Meeting Day. An updated 2016 lot was not yet available.
The number of women lag behind men in all levels of government.
Representation2020, a nonprofit focused on making elections more participatory through structural changes, placed Vermont 41st in the country on a gender-parity index after the 2014 election. The state dropped 36 places since 1993 while New Hampshire received the best gender-parity score.
Vermont Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters wouldn’t speculate why women don’t serve.
“I think that it’s very possible women are more responsible for family care, such as caring for children and caring for elderly parents, it is possible that they see those being barriers to being on a local office,” said Cary Brown, the executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women.
Select board positions are notorious for being thankless jobs. Board members are often criticized by residents and in return they receive small yearly stipends for what can be full-time work.
Reading hasn’t had a woman select board member in memory— and none have run for a spot.
“Incumbents tend to get elected,” said Reading chair Bob Allen, who has served since 1973.
Grettie Howe was the first woman elected to the five-member Woodstock select board nine years ago, a board she now chairs. She’s the only woman who’s tried to run.
“It’s not a fancy job,” Howe said. “You certainly learn about overweight truck permits, ditches and roads and things like that.”
Howe, a Woodstock native who previously served on the Woodstock Area Chamber of Commerce board, felt out of her “comfort zone” but she ran for the select board out of support from fellow women.
She was elected in 2007 after the select board expanded from three to five.
“She’s been a great asset to the board. She’s a great person. She also happens to be a great woman,” said Woodstock Municipal Manager Phil Swanson.
There’s progress, Howe said, but changing a view that select boards are “old boys clubs” takes time.
Men control the three-person select boards in Plymouth, West Windsor and Barnard.
Williams, one of Pomfret’s newest select board members, has attended just about all of the meetings — part of a group of people devoted to creating a strong, transparent government.
“The select board’s kind of been an old boys club for years,” she said. “I think having the expanded board with more seats available probably helped to give women more opportunity to be elected to one of those seats.”
Hopkins works in the IT department at the nonprofit organization Aris Solutions.
“My only thought is: What took us so long?” she said.
Women are leaders in other roles. They control nonprofits, like Sustainable Woodstock, Pentangle Arts Council, the Woodstock Area Chamber of Commerce and local food shelves.
“Women are quite powerful in Woodstock,” Woodstock Village Trustee Jeff Kahn said.
Women are town clerks and treasurers, holding 88 percent of those positions in the state, the Standard found, based on a list of names provided by the Secretary of State’s office. They fill lister and auditor positions. The sevenmember library trustee board in Pomfret is all women.
“I don’t know exactly why that is,” said Abbott Memorial Library Trustee Anne Bower. “There’s a statistic out there that says women read more than men.”
Bower said the lack of women select board members could have to do with the type of work.
“Certainly, in these rural areas where so much of the work has to do with the roads, most of the men seem to be more familiar with that.
“I don’t want to be a stereotyper,” Bower added. “I just think attitudes take a long time to change.”
Patty McGrath, the only woman on the three-person Killington select board, was re-elected for a second term over Jim Haff on Town Meeting Day.
“This is a job I probably would not have taken on if my children were younger…simply because I worked a full-time job,” said Grath, the owner of the Inn at Long Trail.
But she doesn’t think women are disadvantaged.
Candace Coburn, the only woman on the Woodstock Village Trustee Board, also doesn’t think there’s a barrier.
“I do think anyone needs a good support from home and I don’t think it matters if you’re male or female,” she said.
Both of Pomfret’s women select board members have lived in town more than 20 years.
It’s too early to tell if they’ll bring different views to Pomfret’s government.
“Most of us are very thrilled that we have these very capable and experienced women joining the select board,” Bower said.
This article first appeared in the March 10, 2016 edition of the Vermont Standard.