Female leaders seek seat at head of table

Staff Writer

 House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi Visits to the White House had become sort of old hat for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. But things were different during her first time there as Democratic leader — she had company.

At the table for a meeting with President George W. Bush and other elected officials, Pelosi recalled feeling crowded in her chair. After fidgeting for a moment, she realized that with her were the spirits of the suffragettes who had paved her way — Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Alice Paul, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony.

“I was standing on their shoulders,” Pelosi told a packed house at Rutgers University’s Douglass Campus Center in a talk sponsored by the Eagleton Institute of Politics’ Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) on March 24. “And I could hear them say, ‘At last, we have a seat at the table.’”

 Assemblywoman Linda Stender Assemblywoman Linda Stender As evidenced by her political position, Pelosi holds in high regard the drive to forge farther on the trails blazed by her predecessors. “We want women to have a seat at the table — not just a seat at the table, but a seat at the head of the table,” she said.

The number of women filling those seats is growing, for the most part, but it’s a slowgoing process. In the U.S. Congress, women hold 99 of 535 seats, or 18.5 percent — up from 13.8 percent a decade prior. Women fill 24.2 percent of seats in state legislatures, up less than 2 percent from 2004. The picture is not as encouraging for statewide elected executive offices, such as governor, with the percentage of women in those positions down nearly 3.5 percent, to 22.6 percent, from 10 years ago, according to CAWP.

“We need more women in government; we need more women to run for office; we need more women to win and serve,” state Ass emblywoman Linda Stender, a Democrat whose district includes part of Middlesex County, said at a “Women in Politics” event hosted by the Middlesex County Federation of Democratic Women on March 26.

 State Sen. Jennifer Beck State Sen. Jennifer Beck While room for improvement is ample, New Jersey ranks high in the percentage of female state legislators, placing among the top 10 nationwide.

State Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth, Mercer) said Monmouth County is a “bright spot” in the state in terms of female officeholders. Three-time director of the Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders — and the first woman to hold the position — Lillian Burry, agreed.


County has a lot to be proud of in that department,” she said, citing Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who was previously the county’s first female sheriff, along with Beck, assemblywomen Mary Pat Angelini, Caroline Casagrande and Amy Handlin, and others. “We have quite a good reputation of women officeholders. I think it has evolved over the years — an encouragement, a support of [women].”

 Freeholder Lillian Burry Freeholder Lillian Burry Burry can speak to that firsthand. As the first woman on the Matawan Borough Council in the 1970s, it wasn’t as evolved.

“Initially, it was, ‘Maybe Mrs. Burry could make the coffee,’ ” she said, adding, “I set that straight right away.”

Burry did not find the boys’ club environment intimidating, she said, because of her experience working with a largely male population in real estate.

It was similar for Pelosi, who grew up with five brothers. Later, while rising through the ranks in Congress, she and other lawmakers had a weekly dinner on Tuesday nights. Despite the camaraderie, the men in the group never asked the women for their input on issues discussed, according to Pelosi. This became glaringly clear one night when the men were discussing childbirth, and never thought to confer with the women — who had 11 children among the three of them — she recalled with a laugh.

 Councilwoman Lucille Panos Councilwoman Lucille Panos “They really, bless their hearts, have changed a lot,” she said.

When Old Bridge Councilwoman Lucille Panos was first elected 12 years ago, she was too concerned with making a difference to feel intimidated. A woman — Barbara Cannon — held the mayoral post, but Panos was the only female on the nine-member council.

“I think some of the men got intimidated by a woman on the council,” she said.

For Panos, as with many women, the daunting part of serving was trying to balance it with the demands of motherhood. But her children, 10 and 15 years old at the time, also provided the inspiration to run for office.

 Councilwoman Dorothy Rasmussen Councilwoman Dorothy Rasmussen “I believe it’s our obligation to make it better for the next generation, and they’re a daily reminder of that,” she said.

As mother to five children, Pelosi had similar concerns.

“In my case, I went from housewife to House speaker,” she said.

When the opportunity arose to run for Congress 26 years ago, one of Pelosi’s daughters encouraged the move. When she told her daughter she would not be around as much if she were to run, her daughter said, “Mother, get a life,” Pelosi recalled.

For Guadagno, the biggest challenge involved in becoming sheriff was juggling her home and professional lives.

“The very nature of the office required me to be on call 24/7,” she said. “It was quite a challenging balancing act to be sure, but one that I asked for and embraced thoroughly.”

 Mayor Wilda Diaz Mayor Wilda Diaz For many women in politics, the entrée to public office was a natural progression from community service.

Such was the case for Metuchen Councilwoman Dorothy Rasmussen, who said she was thrilled when current Mayor Thomas Vahalla asked her to run with him in 2009 after she’d helped with Democratic campaigns.

Her affinity with the party came much earlier, when she was 8.

“I learned then that the Democrats were for … treating people equally,” she said.

While equal treatment was a hard-won political victory — as Pelosi pointed out, the war wages on in the work world, where women still make 77 cents to men’s $1 — female politicians point out that equality doesn’t equate to sameness.

 Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno “Just as men bring a different perspective, so do women,” Panos said, adding that women’s perspective may be more nurturing than that of their male counterparts.

“I think women undervalue what they bring to the table,” Pelosi said. “I really do believe in women’s intuition.”

The notion of women’s unique contribution in politics is not just intuitive, according to CAWP, which points to research showing that women make government more transparent, inclusive and accessible.

It’s this sense of inclusiveness, along with a desire to see more contributions by women, that has some helping others get into office.

“I encourage women to seek office, because we come with a different perspective,” said Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz, the city’s first female mayor and the first woman to preside over the New Jersey Urban Mayors’ Association. “I really think we look at everything before we make a decision.”

Stender said one of her own mentors taught her “… that we have to lift as we climb … extend your hand and bring other women into the process.”

And once a woman arrives, she should seek to appoint viable candidates of her gender, Stender added.

Jamesburg Council President Daria Ludas, a retired teacher, said it is inspiring to see that Chanelle McCullum, a student in her first kindergarten class, is now a Piscataway councilwoman.

There seems to be no shortage of women in politics seeking to recruit others. CAWP initiatives “Ready to Run” and “Teach a Girl to Lead” further that cause. The mission of the Middlesex County Federation of Democratic Women is to get more women to run for office, according to President Marion Costanza.

“I’m fortunate to meet incredibly accomplished women on a regular basis, and I never miss the opportunity to highlight their stories,” Guadagno said. “In fact, speaking to young women about the importance of mentoring and seeking their own examples to follow in pursuing their own professional dreams has been a mainstay of my tenure, and it will continue to be in the years ahead.”

Diaz said she often visits schools to do outreach with young women.

Decreasing the role of money in politics would increase the level of civility, paving the way for more women, Pelosi said.

That is not to say money doesn’t have its place.

“That’s a place where women have not typically stepped up to the plate,” Stender said, referring to the need for campaign donations. “I think part of what we want to change our awareness to is that it takes money to run a campaign.”

Part of House Democrats’ economic agenda, “When Women Succeed, America Succeeds,” is promoting more women in government.

“We’re at a place where we can just break through,” Pelosi said. “Really it comes down to … young girls, students and young women, and what they see in themselves.”

According to Beck, what those young women see has evolved in recent years.

“I think the next generation of women is really set to change the world,” she said. “When I speak to young women … there’s a certainty about them that really leads me to believe you are going to see a true evolution in leadership positions to the greatest extent that we’ve ever seen. And there’s just a sense that it is not unusual and there is no sense that they’re a minority. … There’s a change in mindset, and it’s really powerful.”

Pelosi said 2016 will likely give credence to that.

“I think American people are ready to elect a woman president,” she said, adding that President Barack Obama’s election in 2008 sent a strong message to the world about the sea change in American politics, and perhaps, the country’s consciousness as a whole. “For every little girl every place, the sky’s the limit.”