17 November 2009

Gradualism Isn’t Working

Former Governor Madeleine Kunin shared powerful words on the topic of “Reclaiming the Spirit of Citizenship,” especially when it came to getting more women in public office. Last year she published a book on the subject, Pearls, Politics and Power, to encourage more women to run.

Kunin served not only as the first woman governor of Vermont—elected three times—but also as Deputy Secretary of Education under President Clinton and then US Ambassador
to Switzerland (where she was born, moving here as a little girl to escape the Nazis.) Her experience shows. Not once did she refer to a note during her hour-long talk, yet she remained in command of her subject, on point and riveting.
Had she been native born, she’d have made a great President. I’m sure I’m not the first to say so.

Paltry Gains in Public Office

She’s no longer a fan of “gradualism,” the notion that the percentage of women in the public arena would rise naturally once women broke into the field. It hasn’t happened, despite the Second Wave of Feminism in the 1970s. Kunin noted that the day before the elections last November, women held 16% of elected offices. The day after the “great gains for women,” females accounted for a whopping 17%. Even if we gained a percentage point every year, it would take until 2042 for women office holders to equal our share of the population and until 2044 to hit our percentage of voters.
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What About Here in Massachusetts?

So how does the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts, that bastion of liberal values, stack up? Our US Senators are men and always have been. Of our 10 current US Congresspeople, one is a woman. That’s 10%, folks.

MA must be better at the state level, you’re thinking?

We’ve never had a woman governor. Currently, only one of the statewide elected executive offices is held by a woman, Attorney General Martha Coakley, and she’s the first woman to hold that office in the 221 years of our history.

We do better in the State House, but we have a ways to go to parity. Of our State Senators, 30% are female and women hold 25% of the State Representative offices. Liberal Massachusetts ranks 18th among the country’s state legislatures in terms of women elected.
Tied with Montana.

As Kunin pointed out, the neighboring states of New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont and Connecticut all do better by women than MA. (Check out the Center for American Women and Politics for other facts.)

How Can Each of Us Improve this Picture?

Hillary Clinton’s campaign brought forward many volunteers who told me, “I’ve never done this before.” Campaign work isn’t hard and the camaraderie amongst volunteers is amazing. I’m still friends with people I got to know during the Presidential primary and expect them to be in my life for a long time to come. (Kim Romano, the videographer doing the documentary of TOP, is one of them.)

If you can’t contribute the time or aren’t physically able to volunteer, give money, however much you’re able. In these days of Internet donations, no contribution is too small because they all add up. Join Emily’s List to help out great women candidates all over the country.

Just as important as these kinds of activism is the kind we can all do: talk to friends, relatives, and acquaintances about our candidates. Wear a button that shows your support. I’ve had wonderful conversations with strangers who come up to me as I’m out walking the dog to ask why I’m for the woman whose button I wear.

Face-to-face discussions change minds and influence votes. Trust me on this one. Governor Kunin’s talk persuaded three women I know to get off the fence and vote for Attorney General Martha Coakley in the race for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat.

Run for Office

If you have the slightest inclination to run for office, read Gov. Kunin’s book, Pearls, Politics and Power. Go to the Barbara Lee Family Foundation website, sign up to be on their email list and get all of the studies they’ve published about how women get the keys to the city, the state and, someday soon I hope, the country. Meet Ms. Lee, an amazing dynamo who raises funds for women candidates. Get in touch with Emily’s List, a national fundraising organization that supports pro-choice Democratic women running for Congress or governor all over the country.

However you choose to do it, feed the flame of citizenship inside you. For your own sake, for other women, and for the country you love.

—Cheryl Suchors


  1. What an eye-opening and shocking article! I had no idea Massachusetts was so behind in getting women into politics. Good for you, Cheryl, for pointing this out so clearly and convincingly, and for modeling how we can make a difference.

  2. Why don't women vote for women? One of TOP's topics for Fall 2010 is "What is the Difficulty Women Have with Women in Power?", so we will have an opportunity to explore reasons for this.
    I think it is because we all, girls as well as boys, grow up with the model in our minds of a politician or elected representative as a male. Once women become more visible in these positions, say 30% (?), this should change. It is just a matter of getting there! The slogan should now be "Vote for Women", no longer "Votes for Women".

  3. Great (though, depressing) piece, Cheryl! Very surprising that Massachusetts is so far behind on the female politician front...