Molly Gray wore a white suit to honor the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage and short heels that wouldn’t make her feet hurt later. She was ready to be sworn in as lieutenant governor of Vermont — but was not prepared for the grate in the floor where she was supposed to stand. Instead, her heels sunk in.
“The first thing I thought of was, ‘Has it been that long since there has been a woman lieutenant governor presiding over the Senate?’” she told The 19th. “I don’t blame anyone … it was just a reflection on the way sometimes our institutions are built.”
Gray is part of a new generation of women leading the Vermont legislature this year, holding top positions in the state’s House and Senate and serving as majority and minority leaders. Gray, as lieutenant governor, also presides over the Senate, with tie-breaking power.
It’s an unusual level of women’s legislative leadership, and they’re taking the helm as states around the country face a number of overlapping crises: an ongoing pandemic that in many cases has closed schools, businesses and other facets of life, hurting state budgets and setting up hard choices about revenue and spending.
Vermont’s leaders have already indicated that issues like bringing relief to unemployed people and small businesses will be priorities. And all three of the new women leaders, in separate interviews with The 19th, also pointed to the burden the pandemic and related closures have placed on women and indicated they see a need to address child care inequities. The scope of any policy proposal is still unclear.
“I am really deeply concerned about the women who have left the workforce in Vermont because of lack of access to child care,” said Jill Krowinski, Vermont’s new House speaker. “I don’t want to lose this opportunity to find a way to help those women as we build a recovery plan in Vermont that leaves no one behind … and I’ve heard other women policymakers say, ‘What is going on there and how can we fix it?’”
Becca Balint, the new Senate president pro tempore — the first woman and out gay person to hold the job — said her priorities this session would include “looking at what support systems were kind of laid bare from the emergency.”
“We saw the holes in our child care system. We saw the holes in our broadband network. We saw that there was a lot more food insecurity among Vermonters than we anticipated,” she said. “A lot of that stuff ties into the work of the pandemic.”
Vermont leaders’ focus on caregiving and inequities — which disproportionately impacts women — emphasizes the importance of them gaining legislative leadership positions, said Jean Sinzdak, associate director at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
“Legislative leaders really set the agenda,” she said. “They really can steer the direction of the legislature in terms of what policies are even examined.”
On the campaign trail, Gray highlighted the need for an “equitable” paid family and medical leave policy in the state. The issue is personal: Her mother had a medical emergency two years ago, according to Gray, that required hospitalization. Gray used vacation and sick days to help take care of her and considered taking unpaid leave from her job as an assistant attorney general.
“We talk about trying to keep families in the state, we talk about trying to draw families here and grow our population and solve our demographic challenges, but we haven’t really focused on the very issues that make Vermont a place where families can live,” she said.
Vermont’s new legislative and statewide leaders are Democrats in a state where the party controls most of the levers of power, though Gov. Phil Scott is a Republican. Scott, a moderate who publicly acknowledged voting for President-elect Joe Biden in November, last January vetoed a comprehensive paid family leave and medical bill over concerns about its price tag, but he’s also put federal funding toward helping child care centers stay open.
Gray said she remains committed to expanding caregiving policies, though acknowledged the focus will be on addressing the pandemic. She said if anyone can handle a crisis, it’s women.
“Women traditionally are good leaders in crisis,” Gray said. “… Women generally have an ability to bring really diverse groups together to get tough things done, and we’re in a really tough situation.”
While the number of women leading House and Senate chambers around the country has gradually increased over time, only a handful of states have women serving both at the same time.
Data is still being collected on women’s legislative leadership in 2021, a year where women are expected to represent just over 30 percent of 7,383 statehouse seats, a record. But the number of women in legislative leadership positions, which vary in title and power by state, lags behind the overall proportion of women in statehouses.
Sinzdak said women legislators are more productive, are more likely to make government transparent, are more likely to help build consensus and are more likely to address wellness issues, including health.
“The idea that you have different faces in those positions of leadership means that there are just going to be different outcomes in some ways, in terms of what policies are addressed and why,” she said.
Vermont already had a track record for a large number of women in statehouse leadership. In 2020, it had the highest percentage of women in top legislative positions at 66.7 percent, according to CAWP. It was followed by the statehouses in Oregon at 62.5 percent and both Maryland and Virginia at 50 percent.
But while Gray is the fourth woman elected lieutenant governor, she is the first in nearly 25 years. It’s been 30 years since the first and only woman governor in the state left office. Vermont is also the only state that has yet to elect a woman to Congress.
Gray said that’s part of why the state’s new political leadership is so important.
“I strongly believe if you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” she said. “… it is a special moment. It is a historic moment.”
Sinzdak of CAWP said one reason women’s representation in legislative leadership has lagged even as more women are elected is seniority — often the positions go to lawmakers who have been serving longer, and often those are men.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” she said. “It’s this dual thing, where you’re trying really hard to get more women to run and get into the legislature, but when they’re in the legislature, you also need to be helping them get positions of leadership.”
Krowinski, who before this year served as a majority leader alongside Balint, said there was a time in Vermont politics where it seemed as if the upper echelons of legislative power were limited to just a handful of women at a time. That has changed, including in general representation of Vermont’s statehouse: As of 2020, 40 percent of state legislators are women, among the highest percentages in the country.
“What we’ve been able to do through supporting one another and encouraging one another is to say, ‘We don’t need to hold that one seat, we need to add seats.’ And I think that there’s been a culture shift over the years of women really encouraging one another to say, ‘You got this. It’s time for you to step up,’” Krowinski said.
Other realities will impact women’s work in leadership this year. Most Vermont legislators are working remotely because of the pandemic in a year in which legislatures are kicking off a hodgepodge of in-person and virtual sessions. Balint, a former teacher, said her work in education has prepared her for the challenge of running a chamber virtually.
“I’m actually pretty comfortable with that scenario,” she said. “I know that some of my colleagues absolutely are not used to coming into a session not being able to anticipate how the arc of our work will go. So I’m just trying to reassure them.”