In 2018, South Burlington resident Kate Bailey was out getting drinks with her coworkers.
“We were talking about this question, about how we've never sent a woman to Congress in Vermont,” she says.
Note: This show is made for the ear! As always, we recommend listening if you can.
“And I listed off some women that I know that are, you know, pretty heavy hitters in Vermont politics."
Bailey was talking about House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski. Plus some popular Vermont senators, like Majority Leader Becca Balint and Appropriations Chair Jane Kitchel.
And, Bailey says, when they started talking about who could win when a seat finally opens up in Washington, her coworkers kept giving reasons as to why that wouldn’t work:
“Oh, well, we can’t have somebody from Chittenden or Grand Isle County, because the rural counties in the state will never elect somebody.”
“You don't want to get a beer with her.”
Bailey was surprised. She grew up in New Hampshire, which has sent four women to Washington at a time. So naturally, she reached out to Brave Little State.
Brave Little State answers your questions about Vermont, our region and its people. Our goal is to empower you, our audience — and make our journalism more inclusive, more transparent and more fun.
This time around, we’re focusing on a topic you all have asked about a lot. Kate Bailey puts it this way:
“Vermont is 50 out of 50 for sending a woman to Congress. And our three representatives are all men in their 70s. So is Vermont ready to send a woman to Congress?”
As a part of the reporting process, Brave Little State did something unprecedented, and put a question in a recent poll conducted by VPR and Vermont PBS.
The poll asked people: Is it a problem that Vermont has never sent a woman to Congress?
Kate Baily wasn't the only one to inquire about this topic. Brave Little State recently received a voicemail with this message:
“Hi Brave Little State, Camille here calling from Norwich, Vermont. Wanted to ask today: Why is Vermont so progressive, but the only state in the nation without a woman representative in the House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate? How do we change this?”
In 2018, Mississippi elected Cindy Hyde-Smith to Congress. And that was the moment Vermont earned its special distinction: It is now the only state never to have elected a woman to Congress. What’s up with that?
Turns out, Vermont’s one and only female governor, Madeleine Kunin, is wondering the same thing.
“I’ve been asking that question of myself – you know, why, why are we at the bottom?” she says.
Vermonters first inaugurated Kunin as governor three days after I was born: On Jan. 10, 1985.
“I and some friends of mine kind of celebrated when I was elected, not only for myself and for my own victory, but we were convinced the dam was broken: Now there would be a deluge of women governors,” Kunin says. “And that just hasn’t happened.”
In 1990, Kunin decided not to run for a fourth term. Vermonters still haven’t elected another woman to that office. Or sent one to D.C. It’s been 30 years.
“I just hope I get to see that day,” Kunin says.
So … why? Why no women?
The first thing you might think of is bias. But voters in all states have bias. What Vermont doesn’t have is opportunity.
“That’s the biggest challenge facing people in Vermont,” says Jean Sinzdak, with the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
First, she says, we’re small. California sends 55 people to Washington, while Vermont sends just the three: Sen. Patrick Leahy, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Rep. Peter Welch.
Next, the Vermont electorate is pretty blue. It’s gone for every Democratic presidential nominee since 1992. You might think that would work in women’s favor. It doesn’t.
“The number one thing that prevents newcomers from coming into the political process is the power of incumbency,” Sinzdak says.
She adds that historically, elected office holders have looked like our current delegation: Older, white, and male. And when you’re in office? The odds are very much in your favor.
So if the white men get there first, like they did? Chances are they’re gonna stay. Especially if there isn’t another party taking them on.
“When you’re talking places where races are essentially non-competitive, so deeply blue states or districts, or deeply red states or districts, there’s just not as much opportunity,” Sinzdak says. “The incumbents tend to benefit even more.”
Vermont’s youngest representative, Peter Welch, is 71 and has been in Congress for 13 years. Sen. Bernie Sanders has been there for nearly 30 years. And Pat Leahy, the longest serving member of the Senate, has been in office for 45 years.
The recent VPR - Vermont PBS poll shows their favorability ratings are through the roof. And women approve of all of them by about 15 percentage points over men.
No wonder there isn’t churn. Who would spend their time and money challenging those kind of numbers?
Across the Connecticut River, things are different.
New Hampshire congresswoman Ann McClane Kuster calls me from a car in Nashua. I want to know how things go in a purple state.
Kuster says it was the weekend of President Obama’s inauguration when she found out that one of New Hampshire's U.S. House seats, which had recently passed from a Republican man to a Democratic one, was being vacated.
Churn baby churn.
Kuster jumped in.
“I ran for this seat as a new candidate,” she says.
But she lost in a nail-biter to the Republican. When she ran again, a national Democratic congressional PAC put her campaign on a list they call “Red to Blue.” It offers support to candidates they think can flip seats.
“I would be invited to events with then-Majority Leader Pelosi,” Kuster says.
The PAC invited Kuster to parties with influential people and gave her funding. And, of course, she worked her tail off. In 2012, Kuster went to Congress in the first all-female Congressional delegation in U.S. history.
Today, eight of the 10 candidates in the “Red to Blue” program are women. Two are people of color. None are from Vermont, of course. It’s already blue.
Our question-askers didn’t just want to know why Vermont has never sent a woman to Congress, but what is being done to change that. Question-asker Catherine from Brattleboro says she wants Sens. Leahy and Sanders to think hard before running for re-election.
“Ultimately, it’s a personal choice, how long people want to stay,” she says. “But I think it’s important to think about the consequences of those choices that we’re making, and what it stops from happening.”
Neither Leahy nor Sanders agreed to an interview. Congressman Welch says this:
“Well, the ultimate decision about who serves and how long they serve obviously belongs to Vermonters. And they've got to make that decision and have an opportunity to do that, in the case of Congress for every two years and in the case of Senate for every six years.”
Eventually a seat will be vacant, because of retirement, or perhaps more imminently, election to the nation’s highest office.
Sinzdak, with the Center for American Women and Politics, says the most important thing Vermonters can do to elect a woman is get ready now, whether that’s organizing or fundraising or something else.
“We know from research that women are far less likely to be asked to run for office by political influencers,” she says. “You’re talking about party officials, other elected officials, top members of the community.”
Studies show women are also less likely than men to just up and decide to run without being recruited. And that is where the Vermont chapter of a national nonprofit called Emerge America comes in. It recruits and trains women to run for office. People like Alyssa Black.
Black says she started thinking about running for office after talking with her own state representative. Black’s son had recently died by suicide with a firearm. And she was at the statehouse advocating for a 24-hour waiting period when her state representative compared the waiting period to an abortion restriction. She was offended.
“I was so angry,” Black says.
So Black decided to challenge him in the next election. But she was filled with the same self-doubt research shows stops so many women from running:
“And then the realities set in and you think, 'Well, no, that's ridiculous. You can't do that. What have you done in your life to make you qualified? How do you even run?'”
That’s when Black remembered an article she read about Emerge. During intensive weekend workshops, Emerge teaches you things like how to write a stump speech and strategies for door knocking. So Black signed up.
“And we did fundraising one weekend, which is terrifying, because if you've never called somebody and reached out and asked them for money, that is terrifying,” Black says. “And, you know, they went through strategies of who you should be calling. How you should make that call. And then, the worst part was, then they made us actually start doing it, and we all did it.”
“And at the end,” Black adds, “you're like, ‘I can do this.’”
Former Gov. Madeleine Kunin started the Vermont chapter of Emerge in 2013. Today, 35 Emerge alums are in elected office. And 17 are in the Vermont Legislature.
We may not have had a governor who’s female in three decades, and we may have never sent a woman to Congress. But get this: The Vermont statehouse? It has better gender equity than almost every other U.S. state.
So, when a seat does finally open up in Congress, what’s going to happen?
Deb Markowitz is Vermont’s former Secretary of State, and a former board member of Emerge Vermont. She’s optimistic Vermont will soon elect a woman to Congress. But, she says, bias is real.
In 2010, Markowitz ran in the Democratic primary for governor. She says people frequently said she didn’t look the part. (She is, by the way, about five feet tall.)
“In our culture, we are trained to think about authority as being in the male voice,” Markowitz says.
The things we tend to value in a leader? They are stereotypically masculine. Researchers call this phenomenon the “double bind.”
“The double bind is, if a woman acts like a leader, she becomes unlikeable,” Markowitz says.”But if she acted like a woman, the way we expect a woman to be, then she doesn't seem like a leader.”
This is what question-asker Kate Bailey was worried about when her colleagues were dismissing women who might run for Congress.
“That conversation that I was having with my with my coworkers drinking, you know, drinks after work, where we're just sort of casually ... shooting women down, I wanted to take a hard look at that and think about why we're not doing that for, you know, Tim Ashe and Zuckerman and these other well-known men,” she says.
Ashe, by the way, is Senate Pro Tem, and David Zuckerman is Lieutenant Governor. Pretty soon, they will both be going up against women in races for statewide office. Zuckerman will face Rebecca Holcombe in a primary for governor, and Ashe will run against three Emerge graduates, Debbie Ingram, Molly Gray and Brenda Seigal, in a primary for lieutenant governor. And that’s just who’s announced so far.
To be clear, though — studies show gender bias may affect women running for executive offices — for president, or for governor — more than for Congress or state legislatures.
Listen to reporter Emily Corwin and Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb discuss the VPR - Vermont PBS poll question about Vermont never sending a woman to U.S. Congress.
A week ago, VPR’s newsroom got back results for a VPR - Vermont PBS poll. And that poll included a question inspired by this episode’s theme. We had to fit the issue into a multiple choice question, so we asked this:
“Vermont is the only state that has never elected a woman to the U.S. House or U.S. Senate. In your opinion, is that a major problem, a minor problem, or not a problem at all?”
For 46% of Vermonters, it’s not a problem. And 52% said it is problem, but mostly a minor one.
Women and younger folks were more likely to say it’s a problem. But the biggest predictor? Party.
Republicans were more than twice as likely as Democrats to say it’s not a problem that Vermont hasn't sent a woman to U.S. Congress.
David Grant took our poll. He says his answer to this question was “not a problem.” I ask why.
“Most of the people I associate with, they don’t care if it’s a man or woman," says Grant, who lives in Barre and drives for a living. "They want someone who’s gonna do a good job. So in my eyes, the people I associate with, no it’s not a problem.”
Beth Brodie, a retired school principal from Burlington, says she sees Vermont’s women-less delegation as a minor problem because it’s well on its way to being fixed.
“When you look historically at Vermont, as in the rest of the country, those leadership positions went to men, and men were more encouraged to do that,” she says. “I think we're seeing a turn of the tide. So when I say it's a problem, it's a problem that we didn't face a long time ago, and we should have.”
I talked to a lot of people for this story. And most believe Vermonters have a good delegation already. Most agree the system has favored men in the past. And most think Vermont women have an equal shot at winning in the future.
So what does it matter if we’ve never sent a woman to Congress?
When I told Senator Becca Balint that 46% of Vermonters said it wasn’t a problem that we hadn’t elected a woman to Congress, she sounded like I had punched her in the gut.
We’re friends, and it was just a casual conversation, so I wasn’t recording. But later, in the Vermont Statehouse, I ask her to explain. And she says it bothers her, because she grew up wanting to be in politics, wanting to run for office, but she didn’t have any role models.
“And so for decades, I put aside thinking that I might be able to have that job,” she tells me. “And so I know many women feel the same way, and girls feel the same way. And I know this because pages, girl pages will come up to me in this building and say, ‘I'm so glad that you're here. I'm so glad that you are a strong woman in this chamber, because now I can see myself in this role.’”
Madeleine Kunin was that role model for many women in office in Vermont today. And though it’s impossible to know what will happen when a seat in U.S. Congress finally opens up, Kunin says she is optimistic:
“We have a good package of experienced women, who would certainly answer the question, ‘Is she qualified?’”
Thanks to Catherine from Brattleboro, Camille from Norwich, Kate Bailey from South Burlington and Carol Mukhopadhyay from San Mateo, California for the great questions.
Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Innovation Fund. You can support us in many ways: Become a sustaining member of VPR, follow us on Twitter or Instagram at @bravestatevt, recommend our show to your pals or leave us a review on your favorite podcast app.
Also: Our first newsletter is coming! Sign up here.
This episode was produced by Emily Corwin, with reporting from Angela Evancie and Bob Kinzel. Editing by Angela Evancie and Sarah Ashworth. Our digital producer is Elodie Reed. We have engineering support from Chris Albertine. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Correction 6:21 p.m. 2/22/20: A previous version of this story stated Deb Markowitz is a former Executive Director of Emerge. In fact, she is a former board member. We apologize for the error.
Correction 9:11 a.m. 2/25/20: A previous version of this story failed to include Debbie Ingram in a list of Emerge alumnae running for Lieutenant Governor.