Vermont is electing its first congresswoman. Big deal.
This November, the voters of Vermont will almost certainly choose a woman to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Big deal.
Whoever wins will join the 144 women (more or less, depending on the election results) who now serve in the House and Senate. That’s slightly more than 27%, still well short of the percentage of women in the electorate (just about half), but twice as many as served a decade ago. In case you hadn’t noticed, the Speaker of the House and the Vice President are both women. Even though the state has yet to elect a female representative to Congress, there are plenty of women who win elections in Vermont. The State Treasurer is a woman. So are 44% of the state legislators, including the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate.
Simply put, there is no reason to suspect that Vermonters have any qualms about voting for women, and while the expected outcome will provide a mildly interesting historical footnote, it will have no impact on legislation or on the balance of political power (she’ll be a Democrat succeeding a Democrat).
However, a small but influential faction of the body politic is committed to painting Vermont—and indeed America as a whole—as a bastion of misogyny. In January of 2021, a letter was sent to the Vermont Press Corps alleging that “prejudice, harmful stereotypes, and bias” are to blame for Vermont’s lack of a Congresswoman. For Vermont’s journalists to help rectify this injustice, the authors of the letter urge Press Corps members to “engage in internal conversations within your organizations about the issues of sexism, gender bias and racism in reporting.”
Fifty-one prominent business executives, leaders of advocacy groups, and academics signed onto the letter initially, and more have since then. Though some news organizations ignored the letter, many who reported on it accepted its claims as revelations. “We hear you, we agree it is a problem,” tweeted Vermont Public Radio CEO and President Scott Finn.
To support their claims, the authors of the letter note that “in news stories quoting legislators, male legislators are quoted 56% of the time while women legislators are quoted 44% of the time.” This finding comes from a seven-page “analysis” of “Gender Bias in Vermont Reporting” by a University of Vermont student, which found that during January and February of the 2018, 2019, and 2020 legislative sessions two Vermont news organizations — the news website VTDigger.org (for which I wrote political columns) and Seven Days (Burlington’s alternative weekly) — had quoted male lawmakers somewhat more than their female counterparts.
But during the months of the study more than 59% of the legislators were men and not quite 41% were women. So Statehouse reporters disproportionately quoted women, not men. The data of the “analysis” do not come close to supporting its conclusion.
The letter does not rely entirely on the quotation analysis. It also argued that during the 2016 presidential campaign “the national press wrote extensively on women’s “‘electability’ —a mythic, unmeasurable, subjective quality” that perpetuates “a false narrative that women cannot serve in higher elective offices.”
There were indeed stories questioning Hillary Clinton’s electability. And roughly as many about Donald Trump’s. In fact, as Politico reported at the end of 2015, the conventional wisdom in elite media circles during that pre-election year was that Trump stood little chance of getting nominated, much less elected. Columns in the Washington Post and the Daily Beast predicted that he wouldn’t run, or would quickly abandon the race if he did. “Trump can’t win” remained the conventional journalistic wisdom through election day in 2016. That’s why both before and after the election, columnists as prestigious as CNN’s Fareed Zakaria and Nate Cohn of the New York Times felt compelled to explain how wrong they had been.
And despite the alleged gender bias of the Vermont Press Corps, the state’s voters chose Clinton over Trump by a twenty-seven-point margin, according to the official results of the State’s Elections Division.
Besides, journalists have been writing about the electability of candidates for decades, back when all the candidates were men. The question of electability has been posed about a Roman Catholic (John F. Kennedy), a Southerner (Jimmy Carter), an ultra-conservative (Ronald Reagan), and a womanizer (Bill Clinton), and in none of these cases was the question unreasonable. There was anti-Catholic bigotry in 1960, and a subtler but unmistakable distrust of Southerners in 1976. Reagan won despite his ideology, and Clinton’s past personal indiscretions came close to sinking his campaign (as a later one came close to sinking his presidency). Few journalists today would argue that it is acceptable to ignore society’s biases when reporting on a story where these biases might be relevant.
America does not yet have gender equality everywhere. But we do when it comes to running for office. In some of the most conservative states in the country—Mississippi, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Wyoming—women routinely beat male opponents in Republican primaries and then in the general election. That’s why these states (and others) have female Republican senators. It’s why three conservative states currently have women Republican governors.
Isn’t this progress worth celebrating? There was nothing close to gender equality when I first started covering campaigns decades ago. In those days, many voters—perhaps most—thought women should do the dishes and let the men govern. Now such attitudes are so rare that they are politically irrelevant.
That change didn’t just happen. It took years of struggle by millions of women and their male allies. They agitated, they organized, they demonstrated. They wrote letters to the editor. Most of them made their arguments calmly and rationally, and persisted until women and men would be able to compete on a level playing field.
We should be taking a victory lap. Instead, a segment of the body politic curiously prefers to act as though progress and improvement are impossible. With democracy and equality under attack both at home and abroad, proponents of democracy and equality ought to build on their successes, not deny them.
When Vermont elects its first Congresswoman this year, it will not be a triumph over an entrenched political patriarchy; that got uprooted years ago, and good riddance to it. Her victory will be another sign of the progress that America has already made on gender equality.
If properly understood, perhaps an omen of a more equal and inclusive society to come.
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