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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Statehouse Ceiling? Group Looks To Boost Democratic Women In Vermont Politics

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Emerge Vermont
Founded in 2013, Emerge Vermont recruits and trains Democratic female candidates. The group's supporters are hoping to improve a spotty track record that has seen only four women elected to any of Vermont's nine statewide posts in the past 30 years.

The prospect of an open seat for governor has sparked a frenzy of political posturing in recent weeks. But the field of potential candidates for statewide office is dominated by men, and Vermont has long fared poorly when it comes to electing women to high-profile offices.

By one measure at least, Vermont is doing okay when it comes to women in politics. More than 40 percent of the state’s 180 legislative spots are occupied by women – the highest rate in the country. 

But that statistic hasn’t translated into gains in the upper echelons of political power. The gender imbalance in statewide offices here puts Vermont in the bottom third of states nationwide, according to Sarah McCall, executive director of Emerge Vermont.

“We actually do pretty poorly,” McCall says.

Founded in 2013, Emerge Vermont recruits and trains Democratic female candidates. The group’s supporters are hoping to improve a spotty track record that has seen only four women elected to any of Vermont's nine statewide posts in the 30 years since the state’s only female governor left office. And perhaps most inauspiciously, says McCall, is that Vermont is one of three states that’s never sent a woman to Washington, D.C.

Barbara Palmer is a professor of political science at Baldwin Wallace University, and the executive director of the Center for Women in Politics of Ohio. Palmer wrote a 2012 book called Women and Congressional Elections: A Century of Change, and she says the power of incumbency makes it hard for women to break into the offices held mostly by men. 

More than 40 percent of the state's 180 legislative spots are occupied by women – the highest rate in the country. But that statistic hasn’t translated into gains in the upper echelons of political power.

Palmer says the climb is especially steep for women in small, rural states, where opportunities for open seats are few and far between.

“So, when you combine incumbency, and lack of opportunity – which I would argue is unfortunately the case in Vermont, when you only have one U.S. house member plus the two senators – it’s very, very hard to get women into those positions,” Palmer says.

So what does a state like Vermont do to rectify the imbalance?

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Credit Becca Balint / Emerge Vermont
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Emerge Vermont
Windham Sen. Becca Balint, right, and Bennington Rep. Kiah Morris are two Emerge Vermont alumnae from 2014. The organization offers a five-month training on fundraising, messaging, and the other nuts and bolts of campaigning.

“It comes down to two words: candidate recruitment,” Palmer says.

Transportation Secretary Sue Minter is the only female candidate publicly weighing a run for governor right now. 

Madeline Kunin, Vermont’s first and only woman governor, has long worked to boost the ranks of women in statewide offices. But she says convincing them to run can be a battle in itself.

“A man easily steps up to the plate and says, ‘Hey, I can do this,’” Kunin says. “A woman is more likely to say, ‘Am I really qualified?’”

Emerge Vermont tries to get women to answer that question in the affirmative. Once they get to "Yes," the organization offers a five-month training course on fundraising, messaging, organizing, and the other nuts and bolts of campaigning.

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, a Republican from Stowe, is one of the few women mulling a bid for higher office.

"When you combine incumbency, and lack of opportunity - which I would argue is unfortunately the case in Vermont, when you only have one U.S. house member plus the two senators - it's very, very hard to get women into those positions." - Barbara Palmer, Center for Women in Politics of Ohio

Studies have shown that female officeholders are more likely to work across the aisle. Scheuermann, who says she might run for lieutenant governor, says that in her experience, women lend a more collaborative dynamic to Statehouse negotiations.

“Women I think go after things a little differently than men, sometimes,” Scheuermann says.

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Credit Ben Sarle / Emerge Vermont
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Emerge Vermont
Emerge Vermont Executive Director Sarah McCall says the organization has its sights set on gains in the 30-member Vermont Senate, which she says can provide a high-profile platform for statewide candidates of the future.

McCall and Palmer say studies show that female officeholders differ from their male counterparts in more than just style.  

“They’re also more likely to lead on issues that have to do with family, equity and human rights, women’s rights, children’s issues,” McCall says.  

McCall says Gov. Peter Shumlin’s decision not to seek reelection caught her by surprise. She says she would have liked a couple more years to develop the bench of female candidates prior to the reshuffling of the statewide deck chairs. 

But she says the organization has its sights set on gains in the 30-member Vermont Senate, which she says can provide a high-profile platform for statewide candidates of the future.

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