Visibility of Women in Politics Gains Local Boost Tuesday Night

Visibility of Women in Politics Gains Local Boost Tuesday Night
Mayor Joanne Yepsen announcing her campaign early last year. Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan stands in the background
Dale Willman

January 7 2014

“You can’t be what you can’t see.”

It’s a phrase Marian Wright Edelman, the Founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, is fond of using, and it’s also used a lot when discussing women’s issues. Especially when it comes to politics – experts say it’s a phrase that may help to explain the lack historically of women participating in elective office in Saratoga Springs. 

That’s because when it comes to women in our city’s politics, until recently there hasn’t been much to see.

That's changing though. Last November, in a historic election for Saratoga Springs, two women ran against each other for office – the first time that has happened in the city’s history. And two women will be seated at the council table Tuesday evening – newly elected Mayor Joanne Yepsen, and re-elected Commissioner of Finance, Michele Madigan.

“I hope that every time a woman is elected, it opens a door for another woman to run for office, or to get involved,” says Yepsen. “I’ve been told by a lot of teenage girls that I serve as a role model for them, and that makes me pleased.” And Yepsen says a number of upstate towns and cities have recently elected women as mayor, “and we’ll only see more of that as we go forward.”

Since the city was formed in 1915, 74 different people have served as a commissioner in the Saratoga Springs government, according to a list compiled by the Saratoga Springs Public Library, but just seven of those have been women. That’s 9%. “Nine percent is pretty low, even lower than what we have in state legislatures and Congress,” says Jean Sinzdak. She directs the Program for Women Public Officials at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

The first woman in government here was Mary A. Mulqueen, according to the library’s list. Mulqueen served as Commissioner of Finance from 1926 until 1945. Nellie Ainsworth was initially appointed to the Commissioner of Public Works after her husband, George, died while in office in 1943. Then it was many more years before other women were elected.

“Something seems fundamentally wrong with a political system that elects so few women when women are more than 50 percent of the population,” says Dr. Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University in Washington, DC.

“It sends a signal that the seats where decisions are made are not open to women.”

Without women in office to act as role models, says Lawless, young girls in Saratoga Springs and elsewhere may not imagine that someday they can run for office, which means the future may not get any better.

The problem of so few women in political office is not just a local one. Nationally, about 2% of all people serving in Congress throughout history have been women. Even today, although women make up more than 50% of the population, they represent only 18.5% of all the members in Congress – that, despite a record number of women holding seats in the House of Representatives (79 – there are 20 in the Senate). And three states – Iowa, Mississippi and even neighboring Vermont, historically a progressive state – have yet to elect a woman to congress. (Vermonters also defeated an equal rights amendment to the Vermont constitution in 1986)

The numbers of women in state government aren’t that high either. Almost half of all states, including New York, have never had a woman governor, according to the Center for American Women and Politics based at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Currently, just five of the 50 states have a sitting woman governor.

Overall, New York’s numbers may not appear to be all that bad. One of the state’s two Senators is a woman – Kirstin Gilibrand. Of 27 members of the House of Representatives, seven are women. In the state Senate, 10 of its 63 members are women, while in the Assembly 36 of the 150 members are women. However while those numbers may seem strong, the state ranks just 32nd among all states for the proportion of women in its state legislature. These figures also come from the Center for American Women and Politics.

Close to Saratoga Springs, the number of women in politics is also low. The county Board of Supervisors has 23 members, two of whom are women. One of six Common Council members in Glens Falls is a woman (Jane Reid). And Wilton’s town council includes one woman, Joanne Klepetar, who was elected in November.**

A lack of role models is just one reason there are so few women in politics, both locally and nationally, according to Dr. Betty Spence. Spence is the president of the National Association for Female Executives, based in New York. She has studied the role of women in leadership positions. She says women aren’t asked to run for office, and that can create a barrier to participation. And rarely, she says, do women look at themselves in the mirror and say “You can do this – you can run for office,” no matter how qualified they may be. This inability to see themselves as a candidate creates another possible barrier.

One major reason women need to be elected, says Spence, is that they bring different priorities to government. “They focus on children, education…it’s family related things, energy,” she says. They also provide “long term thinking about what the country needs, rather than short term thinking about the quickest way to get X or Y.”

Women are “far more likely to be collaborative,” she adds, a trait that better leads to consensus according to a study from Colorado. In that study, says Jennifer Lawless of American University, women in the state legislature were more likely to call more witnesses during committee hearings, and so the committees were more likely to report out bills that were reached with unanimous committee support. “The assumption,” says Lawless, is “the unanimous support came because of longer deliberation and a more collaborative process.”

Women become more prominent in politics on Tuesday night though.

There are five commissioners in the Saratoga Springs form of government. Of those five positions, two – Commissioner of Public Safety and Commissioner of Accounts – have never had a woman elected to that office. There has only been one female Commissioner of Public Works – Nellie Ainsworth, who was initially appointed to the office, not elected. Until this year, just two women have been mayor – Almeda C. Dake, elected in 1990, and Valerie Keehn, who served from 2006-2007 – with a third, Joanne Yepsen, presiding over her first council meeting Tuesday night.

The stronghold for women elected as city officials has been the Commissioner of Finance. Mary Mulqueen served from 1926-1945, the longest serving female elected official in Saratoga Springs History. Remigia A. Foy served twice, first elected in 1974 and again in 1990. And of course the current Commissioner of Finance is Michele Madigan.

** The original version of this story indicated that the Wilton town council was all men. The information was taken from the town's website, which had not been reflected to update the recent election. We regret the error.



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