Since Women Got the Right to Vote ...

Women have been voting in Massachusetts since 1881. Well, not in all elections, but that was the year Massachusetts granted women the right to vote for members of school committees.

It was 1924 when the legislature finally ratified the Constitutional amendment allowing women to vote in all elections.

Earlier this month, a new member was sworn into the Massachusetts Senate. Her arrival gave the Senate its highest percentage of women ever. Just over 25 percent, 11 of 40.

The Massachusetts House of Representatives has a similar percentage--about 25 percent. Which is also about the national average. Thirty years ago, it was only 4 percent.

For trivia reasons alone, I'll tell you that there are 7,424 male and female state legislators in America. States with the most women legislators are Washington with 41 percent, Nevada with 37, Arizona with 36, and Colorado, 34 percent. Others in the top ten include Kansas, Vermont, New Hampshire, Oregon, Connecticut and Maryland.

Nationally, we have no women from Massachusetts in Congress, where just 12 percent of the members are female, and we've never had a woman from Massachusetts in the U. S. Senate, where women are even scarcer, at less than 10 percent. We've never had a woman Governor either.

On the positive side, we have had three women elected to statewide office--current Lt. Governor Jane Swift, one of 18 second in command women in state governments; current Treasurer Shannon O'Brien, one of 10 across the country; and former Lt. Governor Evelyn Murphy.

In fact, according to the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at UMass Boston, when compared with all other states, Massachusetts ranks 37th for the number of women in elected state and national office. We,re last among the six New England states.

Yet, we rank fourth nationally and first in New England in a composite index of women's economic and educational status.

And, think about this--some 51 percent of women polled say the country would be better off with more women in political leadership. But, and this is a big "but," only 8 percent of women in Massachusetts say they've considered running for political office.

Are Massachusetts women unlikely to run due to the highly Democratic (Big D there, folks) majority and its urban, ethnic character which is more traditional on social and family issues and less welcoming to women? Is it because the more professional a legislature is it is harder for outsiders to break in? Does the high status legislators hold keep other women out?

Can't women win, if they run? Of course, they can win. In Massachusetts, 84 percent of the women who ran for the state legislature in 1996 won. National data shows that women win as often as men. It's just that far fewer women run.

And, once we win, what do we do? And are we good at it? The National Order of Women Legislators, of which I'm vice president, had the Gallup Organization do a leadership survey of legislators, women and men.

Constituents ranked men and women about the same in effectiveness. But females were perceived to have better abilities when it came to having a passion for people, doing special things to thank people, being efficient and effective, and following through on details.

Bottom line of the survey was that women and men legislators, alike, provide care and concern for individuals, and put emphasis on frequent contact and sharing information. Both are unlikely to focus on self-interests or be reproving of those who don't meet their standards.

But women were more apt to consider the moral consequences of their decision and to question assumptions, and more likely to offer assistance to others. Men were more likely to wait for something to go wrong before taking action.

Interesting sidebar: 72 percent of women legislators were first born children, vs just 58 percent of men. And, I think even more interesting, was the fact that men and women in state legislatures and congress alike, said that their own parents were strict but fair. That they spent a lot of time reading. That they were encouraged to bring friends more. That they were taught by their parents that they would succeed if they tried and were taught, at home, that there was a lot of good in people.

The survey predicted, by the way, that women will achieve parity in many environments in the new millennium, due to increasing emphasis on relationships, networking, collaboration, and supportiveness--qualities women excel at.

Do women care only about so-called women's issues? Anne Marie Cammisa, a visiting scholar at Radcliffe, points out that women and men are more similar in their interests when at least a fourth of the legislative body is women.

And that is most likely to happen in States like Massachusetts that have fulltime, professional legislatures--and a relatively high percentage of women-- compared with states with less professional or so-called citizen bodies.

Professional legislatures--based on length of sessions, pay, and staffing--are in just nine states. Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin.

Camissa pondered the issue of women on "powerful and prestigious committees--like Ways and Means and found that we were represented, at about the same percentage as we are in the legislature. Some 25 percent.

More women do indeed serve on three committees that have traditionally been women,s committees--Education, Arts and Humanities, Health Care. But, women are over-represented on a traditional male committee, Science and Technology, and under-represented on Banking, Commerce and Labor, and Taxation in the House.

But, are women choosing these committees? Or being pigeonholed there? I think they're setting their own priorities--requesting committees they have an interest in. And, Camissa agrees.

So, who are the women in the legislature? Most are Democrats. Not surprisingly, this being an overwhelmingly Democratic state. Most are over 50, very few under 40. They are highly educated--almost 37 percent have bachelors degrees, and 42 percent of the Representatives and 85 percent of the Senators have professional degrees beyond the bachelors. All of the women in the Senate come from professional backgrounds, as do half of the Representatives. All of the Senators and 85 percent of the Representatives had prior political experience.

We may never know the real answer to some questions--why more women don't run, for example. Or, why, for another example, are more than 70 percent of women Representatives married and only 8 percent single, while less than 30 percent of the women Senators are married and more than 40 percent single?

For the record, I celebrate my 34th anniversary next week, have two grown children, one grandchild, four Siamese cats. I'm a Republican, and never held political office before going to the Legislature. I serve on traditional "men's committees"--Ways and Means, Long Term Debt, and Insurance. I guess anything is possible.

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