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Female Staffers Share Perspectives on Women’s Progress in the Legislature

By Martha Wigton | March 23, 2021 | State Legislatures News

I have been inspired my whole life by an incredible 94-year-old woman who grew up through the hardships of the Great Depression and a world war to become a mother of four and, bucking tradition in her late 40s, pursue a college degree when campuses were still for young people and begin a career. As that woman—my mama—always told me, “You can do anything you want if you set your mind to it.” So I did, beginning a lifetime of public service with the Georgia General Assembly.

At a meeting early in my career, as the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker sat down to discuss the budget and staff stood inconspicuously along the walls of the governor’s office, the venerable speaker, Tom Murphy, rose abruptly to offer me his chair. Suddenly, all the men in the room scrambled to find another chair, and I stood there mortified to be the cause of disruption. But in that defining moment, I became acutely aware that I was the only woman in the room, a spot earned by setting my mind to doing my best at a job that I love.

During Women’s History Month, we can all be empowered by the significant growth in the number of women in every room, and the fierce sense of duty and professional excellence they bring with them to our legislatures. I am honored to buck tradition as the first woman appointed to direct the Georgia House Budget and Research Office, especially as we set out to pioneer the legislature of the future with streamed sessions, paperless committees, telework and heightened public engagement through technology. Even though the rooms may be virtual, women will be in them as equal and dynamic contributors to the history and the future of our American democracy.

The theme of this year’s Women’s History Month is “Valiant Women of the Vote: Refusing to Be Silenced,” an extension of last year’s theme because many events celebrating the centennial of women’s suffrage were canceled. As its recognition of the month draws to a close, NCSL reached out to a handful of female staffers to ask them what the month means to them, how the legislature as a workplace has changed, and what messages they have for newer female legislative staffers across the country.

Above, from left: Susan Schaar is a former NCSL staff chair and the clerk of the Virginia Senate, where she has served for 47 years; Yolanda Dixon is secretary of the Louisiana Senate and has served the legislature for 32 years; Janet Miller is the sergeant-at-arms of the Vermont General Assembly, where she has served for 21 years, six of them in her current role; and Terri Clark is director of technical services for the Kansas Legislature, where she has served for 23 years, and a former chair of the National Association of Legislative Information Technology.

 

What does Women’s History Month, particularly the extension of the 2020 theme celebrating the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, mean to you?

Schaar: Women’s History month has taken on a new meaning for me after working on the Virginia Women’s Monument for over the last 10 years. We started by conducting focus groups around the state, then sent out requests for RFPs and received over 35 from around the country and internationally. One of our focus groups was composed of young women from the University of Richmond. They felt strongly that the design should be approachable, not up on a pedestal or horse and no weapons. That concept has been embodied in the “Voices From the Garden” monument on Capitol Square in Richmond. Selecting the 12 women from over 400 years of history to be represented in statues and the 230 names on the glass walls was an amazing experience for me. I have a deeper respect for what women accomplished before the right to vote and the mountains still to climb.

Dixon: Women’s History Month is a time when we should all reflect on and be grateful for the positive gains made because of the women’s suffrage movement, and like movements which seek to improve the lives of those who have been disenfranchised or silenced in the quest for equality. While the history of the suffrage movement is fraught with its own controversies of equality, in the end it brought to light the precariousness of voting rights in this country. We must also remember that the suffrage movement was not done in a day. It was a piecemeal movement which made small gains over a considerable period of time and should remind us that change does not happen overnight. It is also a time to recommit to the notion of mobilizing political power so that all people have the opportunity to thrive.

Miller: My grandmother was born in 1905. The realization that her mother did not have the right to vote makes me think it’s only a small fraction of time that women have voted and how far we have come.

Clark: It’s a time to remember those women who led the suffrage movement, but also those women whose stories aren’t as known. The women who did what they could, maybe giving just a few hours of their busy lives to attend a march. It took decades for women to gain the right to vote. During that time, thousands of women marched and spoke out in support of women’s suffrage, risking the anger and ridicule of others to do so. I am grateful for the perseverance and passion of those women who maybe wanted to do more but still did what they could.

During this month, we tend to focus on women’s social and political gains. What else should the month be celebrating?

Schaar: We also need to acknowledge and honor women who accomplished so much in history without having the right to vote. Strong women, strong voices.

Dixon: At this moment, we ought to celebrate surviving the past year and be thankful for our families, friends and the front-line workers.

Miller: We should celebrate the spirit of perseverance for women who struggle every day through inequities, illness, abuse and other challenges.

Clark: Since women’s suffrage we’ve seen tremendous progress made in closing the wage gap, affordable child care and other important women’s issues. When we celebrate these improvements, we’re also celebrating the young women today who can build on this foundation. Seeing young women take leadership roles in corporations, government, sports, science and other areas is cause for celebration. Living in a world that creates a space for young female voices, like the poet Amanda Gorman’s, to be heard, is cause for celebration.

How is the legislature as a workplace for women? Has it changed?

Schaar: The legislature is now more inclusive of women, including offering leadership opportunities. Over one-fourth of the Virginia Senate is women, with four holding chairs. They have brought a different perspective to education, elder care, health care and social justice. I think this gives the legislature a more balanced view of the world and the issues we face today.

Dixon: From the time I started working in the legislature 30 years ago, women have made quite a few strides in holding upper-level management positions in legislative employment. I and my House of Representatives counterpart, Michelle Fontenot, are the first women to hold the chief clerical offices of our chambers. We were elected in 2020. I now see more women elected to the legislature, become chairs of important committees, and serve in the president and speaker pro tem positions. I look forward to the day that gender is not a factor in the highest levels of office or in employment, and we all simply seek the best-qualified person for the job.

Miller: I think the legislature is a wonderful place for women, because here they can make change happen, change laws and make a difference for women all over the state.

Clark: The legislature is, overall, a fairly progressive employment environment for women. This could possibly be due to the collaborative nature of the legislature, which focuses on an individual’s capabilities. The Kansas Legislature was an early adopter of promoting women to department director roles and elected Susan Wagle as Senate president in 2013.

How have you, as a female staffer, made an impact on the legislative institution or legislative process?

Schaar: As a female staffer I hope that I have and will continue to reach out to younger female staffers and potential staffers to instill a love of the legislative process and encourage them to strive for their potential. I think I have brought a more inclusive aspect to our team, and I serve as a strong voice for legislative staff by not hesitating to speak up on their behalf and not just for my agency. It is important for all staff to understand that they are the protectors of the process and are keepers of the flame of democracy! It is also important for women to encourage younger female staffers to strive for the top.

Dixon: I don’t know if I can quantify an impact that I’ve made on the legislative process. I do know that I have tried to look at different solutions to problems rather than stick to the same old answers and traditions. I have tried to be open to different ideas while still getting the work done. When I am in the room where decisions are being made, I try to bring my experiences and perspectives, which may reflect those of other women, to the table. Most important, I hope that I have been inspirational to young women in the legislative institution so that they see that there is a place for them.

Miller: I keep an open mind when I walk through the door of the Capitol. I am more perceptive to people’s needs and provide help in any way I can. The staff, legislators and the public know that they can count on me, for whatever support they need, to make their day successful.

Clark: I have probably made the biggest impact as a female staffer just by showing up, especially working in information technology infrastructure. People are frequently surprised to learn I’m female, assuming it must be a male in this position. By simply showing up I am changing assumptions of women’s competencies.

Who has inspired you or had a big influence in your work?

Schaar: The most important influencers in my work have been my parents, who instilled a strong work ethic and a love of Virginia history early in my life. Also, Clara Keith who was dean of students at my alma mater, Westhampton College of the University of Richmond. She always encouraged me and served as a sounding board as I moved into my career. I would also have to say that the women of the Virginia Senate have always encouraged me to do my best. They are amazing women who have all had an impact on me, especially Senator Yvonne Miller. She grew up in the projects of Norfolk, Va., one of 11 children and the first in her family to graduate from college. She was the first African American woman to be elected to the Virginia House of Delegates and then the Senate, and she was the first to chair a committee (Senate Transportation). You always knew where you stood with Senator Miller. She was an amazing role model.

Dixon: My inspirations have been the women in my family, whether born to it or chosen to be in it. They know the space you are in at any given moment, and can pick you up, dust you off and set you straight for your next challenge.

Miller: My parents, who had high school educations and worked hard every day. They taught me that kindness and honesty can take you very far.

Clark: I was fortunate to know my great-grandmother, who lived through the time of women’s suffrage. My great-grandfather didn’t want to talk about it; I’ve always thought he learned to support women’s right to vote through her urging. My grandmother was active in the Women’s Business and Professional Association and started a women’s conference that has grown into a three-day event in Kansas City. My mom and aunt attended a women’s march and actually burned their bras. Scandalous! My inspiration comes from these strong women who just did what needed to be done at the time.

With this being Women’s History Month, what message do you have for newer female legislative staffers across the country?

Schaar: One of the things I share with new staffers is that if you are going to work with the legislature you have to be extremely flexible because things can change in a minute. You have to have a sense of humor, which includes laughing at yourself, and you have to have a love and respect for people because you are dealing with people from all walks of life. The other advice I would have is to always be professional and remember to reach back and pull the next woman up. Be a role model!

Dixon: The future is yours. If you invest yourself, we can write women’s history in real time to look more like what it actually is. Let’s own our destiny and accomplishments and build upon them to reflect the indelible stamp of women in this country.

Miller: Appreciate the history of the institution, the good and the bad, and remember the evolution that brought change for you to be here today.

Clark: This is an incredible time to be starting a career in the state legislature. Current social movements are truly leveling the playing field, allowing women to be recognized solely based on their skills, abilities and intelligence. Women also bring their unique perspectives and histories to the workplace. I encourage newer female staffers to work with a mentor, build relationships and let your personality shine each day.

NCSL Staff Chair Martha Wigton is director of the Georgia House Budget and Research Office. The interview responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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