Female leaders discuss successes and setbacks of women in politics

Gene Valicenti of News Channel 10 moderates a discussion on women in politics in Alger Hall on Nov. 9.

Gene Valicenti of News Channel 10 moderates a discussion on women in politics in Alger Hall on Nov. 9.
Though nearly a century has passed since American women were granted the right to vote, only a sliver of all currently elected officials are female. That was the point discussed when a group of former and current female politicians gathered in RIC’s Alger Hall on Nov. 9 for the forum, “Through the Looking Glass: Trail-Blazing Rhode Island Women Talk Politics.”

Photo gallery

Panelists Susan Farmer and Susan Stenhouse enjoy a light
moment at the forum.
Sponsored by RIC’s American Democracy Project, the event featured panelists Grace Diaz, House representative and deputy majority leader; Susan Farmer, former secretary of state; Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts; Susan Stenhouse, director of Community Relations in the Governor’s Office; and R.I. Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed. News Channel 10’s Gene Valicenti moderated the panel.

The forum was held in honor of the 90th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote.

Valicenti began the discussion with a simple inquiry: “Why are there not more women in Rhode Island politics?”

The answers, according to the panelists, include traditional family roles, differences between genders and the attitude of younger generations.

A fact often brought up in the conversation was that, even though 52 percent of Rhode Island’s population is comprised of women, they fulfill only 15 percent of all political positions. Grace Diaz argued that because of this, “the population is not being accurately represented.”

Farmer was blunt on the topic: “Unfortunately, we’ve dropped the ball. Eighty-five percent of elected officials are men.” She argued that the fault lay with the younger generations of women. “Women, instead of focusing only on jobs and children, should be becoming a part of the political process.”

Susan Farmer, right, makes a point as Gene Valicenti and Grace
Diaz listen.
Roberts noted that women tend to have different approaches to problem solving than men. She said that men tend to immediately throw their hats into the ring when contemplating running for a position, and women are slightly more reserved and less likely to resign themselves to a demanding political career. She added that women tend to get involved in politics because there is an issue they care deeply about, rather than as a career move.

“Women tend to stop themselves from running,” she said. The difference in approach to politics could make for a significant alternative to the way matters are handled, she argued.

Stenhouse shared Roberts’s sentiments, claiming that women will “almost overanalyze” whether or not to run.

Stenhouse also tossed some of the blame to the women in the audience, the majority of which were students. She said that, even though there are numerous opportunities for young women to segue into a political career, “I’m not seeing those opportunities being grasped by your generation.”

Elizabeth Roberts, left, and Teresa Paiva Weed participated
in the forum.
Paiva Weed speculated that having small children and a nuclear family structure makes it difficult to run for the General Assembly, where meeting times can conflict with dinner time at home.

Roberts, however, said that politics is a profession, and that people do all sorts of things to make their profession work, including creating “different family patterns” and “ways around obstacles.”

Despite the currently low number of women in elective office, the panelists found reasons for optimism for the future of women in politics.

“We are increasing our numbers slowly but surely,” Paiva Weed said of female elected officials. “Each one of us,” she said referring to the panelists, “is the first in something. I hope we are building a strong foundation for the women in generations to come.”