By Jasper Craven
At Sue Minter’s gubernatorial campaign kickoff earlier this week, former Gov. Madeleine Kunin – an early supporter of Minter’s and the only woman to hold the post – gestured with her hand as if she was holding a torch.
“It’s a torch I’ve been carrying for a long time, actually since 1991 since I stepped down as the first woman governor,” Kunin said to the crowd.
“It’s beginning to burn my fingers,” she continued. “I’m ready, willing and able and enthusiastic to pass it on to Sue Minter.”
Minter, the only woman to have declared a run for statewide office in 2016, went on to thank Kunin for her endorsement.
While it’s no secret that females are underrepresented in American politics, Vermont is one of the hardest states for women to break into higher office.
A recent index by Representation 2020 ranked the Green Mountain state 41st in the nation in terms of the electoral success of women on the local, state and national levels.
The index ranks states on a scale of 0 (no women in major office) to 100 (all women hold such offices). Vermont earned an 11.5, virtually the same score the group gave to the state last year.
Minter said a major problem in the state is a lack of female role models in politics. She said politicians like Kunin and former House Speaker Gaye Symington inspired her to enter the political realm.
Minter said that while it is important to get more women in office, that was not a major part of her decision to run.
“I really want to emphasize that I am not running because of my gender, I’m running on my qualifications,” Minter said.
Vermont is one of three states, along with Delaware and Mississippi, which has never elected a woman to U.S. Congress, according to the report. And only one woman, Madeline Kunin, has served as the state’s governor. Only one of Vermont’s major cities, Saint Albans, has a female mayor in Liz Gamache.
Sarah McCall, the executive director of Emerge Vermont, an organization that identifies and trains women for political office, said because of the Vermont’s small congressional delegation and the effectiveness and popularity of the current delegation it has been hard to get a women elected.
“They are enormously popular and do a great job in Washington representing Vermont interests,” McCall said. “So we have lower turnover rates in these positions.”
In the state legislature, Vermont’s representation is much more progressive, ranking second nationwide in gender parity.
Since 1993, the percent of seats in the Vermont legislature held by woman has increased by seven percent, to 41 percent in 2015, according to Representation 2020. Sixty-five women currently serve in the House and nine are in the Senate, according to the report.
McCall, who is also running Sue Minter’s gubernatorial run, said that while legislative representative was encouraging, the low number of women Senators is a troubling sign for the future of women in statewide office.
“If you look at Gov. Peter Shumlin or Rep. Peter Welch, the Senate is often one of the steppingstones to higher office,” she said. “If you have a dearth of women in the Senate than you have fewer candidates moving into larger offices.”
The United States places far behind many other industrialized countries in gender parity, with American ranking 95th in the world for women’s representation when compared to 189 countries. Twenty percent of the U.S. Senate and 19 percent of the U.S. House is comprised of women, according to the report.
The report suggests state and federal actions that could diversity political representation in the nation, including intentional recruitment practices and gender-conscious legislative rules, such as time of sessions, that allow more women to participate.
“Absent intervention by our political parties and lawmakers to reform electoral rules and political institutions, we simply won’t achieve gender parity nationally or in most states,” said Cynthia Terrell, founder of Representation 2020 in a statement. “Not in our lifetime, not in 100 years, not ever.”
McCall pointed to other reasons that impede recruitment, including that many women enter politics later in life, after their kids are out of the house and in college.
She also said that deep-seated cultural beliefs make it hard for women to imagine themselves in executive positions.
“It’s an internal socialization that women don’t necessarily wake up and see themselves as the future governor of Vermont.” McCall said. “Whereas a young boy has seen many male governors, it’s always been a role they can see themselves in.”
Minter said that women’s perspectives are desperately needed in state and national politics, and pointed to a coalition of female Senators who helped broker a deal to reopen the government in 2013.
“When we were at an impasse, it was the women in the Senate who got together and, according to congressman Welch, really forged the consensus that broke that impasse,” Minter said.