For women in Vermont, leadership roles have been difficult to grasp over the years as they fought for equal rights, equal pay and equal representation.
Of the 296 state constitutional officers elected since 1778, only 11 have been women, including a single female governor — Madeleine Kunin, who held the office from 1985 to 1991.
Vermont and Mississippi are the only two states never to have elected a woman to the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives.
Women have fared better in the Vermont Legislature over the last few years. In 2016, there were 65 women in the 150-seat House of Representatives, and nine in the 30-member Senate, for a total of 74 women in the Legislature, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
This year, there are 62 women in the House and 11 in the Senate, for a total of 73.
That makes the Legislature just over 40 percent female.
In local politics, select board and school board participation data show that women have a louder voice in matters of education than they do in municipal government.
That adds up. School boards statewide are 50 percent women, according to Ruth Hardy, executive director of Emerge Vermont, an organization that aims to get more Democratic women into offices statewide.
However, women on select boards account for just 21 percent of total seats.
Lamoille County’s select boards are “better” than the rest of the state, at 32 percent women, Hardy said.
Only three towns surveyed locally — Waterville, Belvidere and Cambridge — had no women on their respective three-person select boards.
Some local ratios of women to men were more even than others — the Waterbury Select Board has one woman to four men, while both the Stowe and Hyde Park select boards have two women and three men.
The volume of female voices
Heidi Scheuermann, who was on the Stowe Select Board for several years before winning a seat in the Vermont House of Representatives in 2006, thinks Vermont “has always been a little ahead of the curve with regard to women.”
Scheuermann, a Republican, is Stowe’s only representative in the Legislature, a position she’s held for 11 years.
Scheuermann said she doesn’t encounter bias because of her gender, but thinks she does because of how she’s perceived as a female Republican.
“The assumption that many have that women who are Republican don’t fight for issues important to women, I think, is false, and is frustrating. All the women I know want to ensure economic opportunities, want to raise their family in a safe place, want to ensure that the education their children receive is the best, highest-quality education that we can give. They want to be able to save for retirement. They want to be able to prosper here. I think all of those issues have been issues I’ve fought for for the last 11 years,” she said.
Scheuermann doesn’t think women in Vermont face as much gender discrimination as they might elsewhere, because Vermont “has a very important independent streak. It’s about the individual, much more so than in other places,” and she doesn’t think Vermonters consider a person’s gender as much as they consider what he or she has to say.
Kyle Nuse, who was unopposed in her run for select board in Johnson, said the men on her board seem to appreciate hearing a different perspective and point of view.
“Men see practicality and function, nuts and bolts,” Nuse said. “But what about the human side? When we hired a new town manager, I thought it was important to consider what kind of personality we want as the face of our town rather than just the financial and business aspect.”
Morgan Nichols of Stowe won a seat on the Stowe Select Board last year. She was running against another woman, so in her run, too, “conversations were less about gender than they were about age and experience. I did my best to showcase my desire to learn, creativity in problem-solving and passion for this town,” Nichols said.
Nichols says she hasn’t noticed any gender bias toward her.
“The select board has welcomed me in and been incredibly supportive as I navigate this first year,” she said.
Barriers to entry
So, why don’t more women get involved in politics?
Sue Minter, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2016, thinks one of the biggest reasons is a vicious circle: “A big, big barrier is, essentially, the fact that there are so few role models. Role models are critical to anyone who is young and sort of thinking about their future,” Minter said.
“You have to see it to be it,” she said.
Rebecca Ellis of Waterbury, who’s deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, rejects the argument that having children and raising a family can be a detriment to getting into politics; she sees her family as an asset. When she had her two sons she took time off from her work as an assistant attorney general, and took the opportunity to ramp up her volunteering. She served on the Waterbury Planning Commission for five years before being elected to the select board, then was elected as one of two Washington-Chittenden representatives in the Legislature.
“I had more flexibility, which opened up me taking on roles in the community,” Ellis said.
Her two sons see her as a strong female role model, she said, and she wants to show them that getting elected to office and serving on community boards is something women can — and should — do.
Ellis’ friends with daughters have mentioned that their daughters are paying attention to the women role models in government.
As a mother of two young girls, Nuse wants to be an inspiration to her own family and to her community.
“Being a town official as a woman, and a woman with two small children, requires many sacrifices — you miss many family meals, bedtimes, school functions, etc.” she said. “But as a mother of two daughters, I talk to them about why I’m missing these things and why it’s important that mommy does what she does for the greater community” — and hopes they’ll someday do the same.
Nuse started an informal women’s group at her home where women can talk about issues that concern them, from town to national levels.
However, “the good ol’ boy mentality is still very strong here, and it takes strength, fortitude and perseverance that a man may not have to muster to get on a board,” Nuse said.
And some women don’t think of themselves as political until it’s brought to their attention, Nichols said.
“Many women have to be asked to take this step to put themselves out there in office. There are the tenacious few who have always felt a calling to be a part of public office, but most haven’t seen themselves in these roles until it has been presented to them,” she said.
Minter believes subconscious bias against women can be a factor in elections.
“People vote for someone who is both strong and likable,” Minter said. “For women, it’s almost a lose-lose. A really strong woman can be seen as a bitch. A woman who is too likable is seen as too weak.”
She thinks smear campaigns against her in the 2016 election, which portrayed her as a bobblehead doll, were speaking to that subliminal sexism.
“I think if you really think about those, I’m seen in a stereotypical light,” Minter said.
Scheuermann also thinks discussion of “women’s issues” weakens the issues themselves, and makes women seem like victims.
“Women’s issues are economic issues. They are public safety issues. They are tax issues. They are education issues. They are health care issues. They run the gamut, and to put women all in one box diminishes the importance of all of the issues for women,” she said.
Lisa Senecal of Stowe, a member of the Vermont Commission on Women, says that for all the good intentions men have, and the efforts they put into understanding the challenges women face, “men will never understand what it’s like to go through life as a woman. And women will never know what it’s like to be a man, except for the few who identify as transgender and see the issues on both sides.”
A series of experiences with sexual harassment in different professional settings pushed Senecal to get involved.
“Look at all the places where Vermont has been first in cultural change,” Senecal said. “This is a glaring problem. Why haven’t we done better to address the barriers women face in getting involved?”
Just the challenges women face in being able to remain in the workforce and get involved because of child care issues are astounding, she said.
Scheuermann thinks one of the biggest barriers to entry for women are obligations to family and work. Women have been expected to devote their time and energy to raising a family, more so than men, Scheuermann said.
However, that’s changing, as men assume greater responsibilities in child care and family life, and boards, businesses and governments offer more support.
Christine Sullivan, the Harwood Unified Union School Board chair, juggles her time caring for her four children and serving on the board.
“There have been many nights where I come home and say ‘I could have been home with my kids,’ but then I’m like yes, they are the reason I’m doing it,” Sullivan said.
When Nuse was elected to Johnson’s select board, she had just given birth to her youngest daughter, and had to bring the infant to meetings because she was nursing.
She didn’t know any of the lingo and acronyms used by the men who’d all been on the board for years. She wasn’t on a first-name basis with many of the people they were talking about, and having to step out to nurse or soothe a crying infant meant she had to ask more clarifying questions and catch up on the conversation once she stepped back in.
“I had to juggle my family and the board, but if there’s a will, there’s a way. You have to have a strong will, though,” Nuse said.
Nuse is now working to make the select board in Johnson more family-friendly — she started a social hour before the meetings, as well as providing babysitting during meetings.
The path forward
Linda Martin, who was a Democratic state representative for 12 years, doesn’t expect it to get easier for women to make political strides overnight.
“It’s a societal thing,” she said. “I think, like not smoking and other social things, it’s going to have to be an evolution.”
There is also a negative light associated with politics, said Theresa Wood, a Democratic state legislator from Waterbury. said. Now that the level of discourse has degraded, it can be seen as negative. Wood never saw herself as a politician before she ran for the House.
“I got into this because I wanted to have people feel more connected to their government. I don’t feel like politics describes my true desire; it was a means to help Vermont become accessible at all levels,” Wood said. “Don’t give up. Be true to your principles, but be OK with compromise when you need to.”
Scheuermann wants to encourage other women to follow in women politicians’ footsteps.
“I say, go for it. I say absolutely don’t let anybody stop you. It is fun. It is important. As a woman, it’s important to bring that perspective. If you have a family, that perspective is incredibly important,” she said.
“Don’t be one of the boys,” Scheuermann said. Women should aspire to be powerful as women, not just because of their similarities to men.
Women also need to know that “failure is an option,” Senecal said. “You can’t be afraid to put yourself out there.”
“I think more women are on school boards because, if they have children, they feel they have more authority to speak on those issues,” she added. “They don’t see themselves as having the background to serve on boards with more civil authority, like the select board. They discount themselves and think men have a background that makes them better suited. They shouldn’t.”