By Meg Hansen
In 2022, Vermont will become the last state in the nation to send a woman to Congress. We are finally ready to elect a two-year term congresswoman (we weren’t in 2006 when the choice was between Democrat Peter Welch and Republican Martha Rainville). As for electing a woman to a six-year stint in the upper chamber, that is a bridge too far.
Following his retirement, Sen. Patrick Leahy’s seat will be open after 48 years. Octogenarian Sen. Bernie Sanders naturally believes that 74-year old Congressman Welch should succeed Leahy. But why have Vermont Democrats acquiesced? So long as it is politically advantageous to “Elect Vermont [Democratic Party] Women,” we are besieged with slogans of gender equity and equality. When a once-in-generation opportunity arises, however, women are told to set their sights low. Welch’s electoral popularity and $2 million war chest are insurmountable, period.
That no woman is willing to challenge Welch in a primary ought to dispel any illusion that Vermont is a progressive-left state that champions diversity and inclusivity in politics. The crux here isn’t about the blatant hypocrisy; it is about maintaining hierarchy. Former Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman recently lamented, “The frustrating reality is that, in the past, the successor for high-ranking elected officials has often been predetermined by those in power through using a small network of powerful people and money long before the general public even starts to pay attention.”
That small network of king and queen makers has decided that Welch will be essentially crowned. In contrast, a slew of women will compete with Lt. Gov. Molly Gray (who recently announced her candidacy) for a seat in the lower chamber. The days when women could only speak when spoken to may be gone, but the era in which women only act as allowed is alive and well.
I am unfamiliar with the practice of requiring permission to pursue my dreams. So, I can only imagine how astute candidates may be reassuring themselves that six years will fly by. What’s six years in front of 48? Vermont women will still make history next year — that is, make history without making trouble. Note that women of center-right political persuasions do not figure in the aforesaid history-making calculus. Independent and Republican women do not count to Vermont PBS, VPR, and sundry left-wing activists because our voices undermine their professed monopoly on women and “Vermont values.”
So few Republican women in office
An unprecedented number of women serve in Congress and state legislatures today, but they disproportionately belong to the Democratic Party. In the 117th Congress, women make up 40 percent of House Democrats and 32 percent of Senate Democrats, whereas they account for a mere 14 percent of House Republicans and 16 percent of Senate Republicans. There are 13 Republican women in the 150-member Vermont House of Representatives and none in the 30-member Senate. What explains this disparity?
1. Aversion to identity politics
We on the center-right, as voters and candidates, find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, we do not wish to elect a candidate solely on the basis of gender. We want to judge and be judged on merit. On the other hand, we understand that being a daughter, sister, wife, and mother shapes a woman’s identity and worldviews in diverse ways. A woman’s lived experience informs how she understands problems and shapes the solutions that she proposes.
We can strike the right balance by prioritizing competence, while acknowledging that women bring unique perspectives and make invaluable contributions to public service. Electing principled, capable, and compassionate women is not an exercise in identity politics.
2. Lack of financial support
Women and men are equal partners in the human experience. Both deserve equal opportunity to succeed in politics. Left-wing groups like Emerge Vermont locally and EMILY’s List nationally have been enormously successful in recruiting, training, and raising money for female candidates. (EMILY is an acronym for “Early Money Is Like Yeast” — it raises the dough). Similar resources for Republicans are scarce because the right-wing establishment has not made electing women a priority.
3. Grand Old Boys’ Party
Across the nation, women recount the obstacles and abuse from insecure members of the Old Boys’ Club who insisted that they were unelectable candidates. In deep red states, women are accused of not being conservative enough; in deep blue states, they are maligned as too conservative. The political right tolerates misogyny.
At least one Vermont Republican who is considering a 2022 congressional bid will not run if the Democratic Party nominee is a woman. Is it any wonder that such easily threatened men would kneecap talented women on the right who dare to seek higher office? To be sure, well-adjusted Republican men have long served as strong allies and mentors to women in politics.
An uneasy mix of ambition, opportunism, and genuflection-on-demand forms the currency in Vermont politics. Women who wish to bring transformational change by serving in public office can either obediently wait their turn or trouble-make their own way.
Meg Hansen is a writer and previously led a Vermont health policy think tank. She serves on the Board of the Ethan Allen Institute. She ran for state-level public office in 2020.