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Vermont Is Now The Only State That's Never Sent A Woman To Congress

Jim Jeffords, Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy holding glasses of milk in 1999 in Montpelier.
Toby Talbot
Associated Press
From left, Sen. Jim Jeffords, Rep. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Patrick Leahy toast in Montpelier on Nov. 22, 1999, following passing of the Northeast Dairy Compact. As of Wednesday, Vermont is now the only state to never have sent a woman to U.S. Congress.

On Wednesday, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant appointed the state's Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith to a U.S. Senate seat, replacing Sen. Thad Cochran. With that appointment, Vermont is now the only state to never send a woman to Congress.

So what does that distinction say about Vermont?

"It's a little hard to explain, given our firsts in so many other areas of progressiveness,” says Terri Hallenbeck, a former statehouse reporter and current assistant director of donor relations at Middlebury College.

Terri Hallenbeck spoke to VPR’s Henry Epp. Listen to their conversation above.

Hallenbeck says one reason could be that in Vermont, "there's a shortage of positions available." Vermont has only one seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

As far as gender representation in Montpelier, Hallenbeck says Vermont's Legislature does have high representation in comparison to other states, although she also notes that those lawmaker positions in Vermont are both part-time and low-pay.

"Now we have women in a lot of positions of power in the Statehouse: a female House Speaker, all the chairs of the money committees are women. Those are powerful positions that decide how the money gets spent. But what I've seen, is that none of those women really aspire to run for higher office. ... They are happy where they are,” Hallenbeck continues.

She says though that sentiment could change in Montpelier in the coming years.

"What I see on the horizon in the Legislature are more women who maybe you can see in five or 10 years will be interested in higher office," Hallenbeck says.

While indeed women’s participation in the Vermont Legislature is higher than the national average, women’s share of state legislative seats have only gone up 4 percentage points in 24 years, according to a 2017 report from Change The Story VT.

“We have long been one of the best, and we never get better at it, if that's the way to put it," says Hallenbeck. 

She adds that she thinks it’s more difficult for women to run for office because women are held to a higher standard image-wise.

"If you had a female candidate who had the hairdo of Bernie Sanders," Hallenbeck says, "she would pay for that on the campaign trail in a way that Bernie doesn’t." 

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