Women Tip Balance In State Legislature

Jan 1, 2014

When the 2014 legislative session convenes next week, there will be one more woman taking a seat. Marjorie Ryerson, of Randolph, is replacing Representative Larry Townsend, who died in June.

With her appointment, Vermont becomes the fourth state legislature in the nation where women hold the majority in the party that holds the majority—in this case, the Democrats. Also, 41 percent of all Vermont’s lawmakers are now women, and that’s the highest percentage in the nation. But if you ask Ryerson herself how important all that scale-tipping is to her, you get a mixed answer.

“I’m very proud, having grown up in an era when women certainly didn’t have this choice and had lower salaries then men and fewer job opportunities, to see this shift,” Ryerson said.  “But I think my personal focus is not on the gender balance, it’s on being the best legislator I can for my district and my state.”

That focus is likely to fall on natural resources—a committee assignment she was elated to get—and on other issues that relate to quality of life in Vermont.

Ryerson’s resume is varied. She has been a select board member, a college professor, a poet, editor, and photographer. Her book, Water Music, mixes photography with meditations by musicians about the power of water in their lives.

“I probably became first involved with the environment with becoming a fighter for clean water and have worked in numerous areas in that particular category,” Ryerson said.

She also wants to work toward the sustainability of Vermont’s farms and forests.

And what about the other women who make up this new majority? Madeleine Kunin, Vermont’s first female governor, predicted in a recent commentary on VPR that they would carve out issues of their own.

“The House won’t turn upside down, but it may shift ever so slightly in the direction of early education, paid sick days, and perhaps paid family and medical leave,” Kunin said.

Women, Kunin argues, “enjoy confrontation less” then male politicians, and may be more willing to compromise.

Kelly Dittmar, a researcher at the Rutgers-based Center for American Women in Politics, says on the whole, research bears that out.  Dittmar commends Vermont’s state government for including so many women, and she wishes other states would do the same.

“And so, we’ve got a lot of ways to go. Is it sort of sad that we’re at this rate in 2014, that we don’t have more cases, that this is only the fourth case? It is sort of sad, because we think it really makes a difference,” Dittmar said.

The keeper of these statistics is Vermont’s state archivist, and that job has recently gone to a woman, too. Her name is Tanya Marshall, and she says that gender equity in Vermont’s public sector has been moving in the right direction since she got her first state job five years ago. But while many in her field—information management—are women, she says the top, the most highly paid jobs still often go to men.

“You know it struck me, I was at a meeting and there were about twenty people there, and it was related to the field, it was related to the archives and special records management of it, and I realized I was the only woman in the room,” Marshall recalled.

These days, that’s less and less true. Especially if that room happens to be in the State House.