Women Rule: The Feminization of Montpelier City Council

by Carla Occaso

Members of Montpelier City Council (left to right) Ashley Hill of Disctrict 3, Anne Watson of District 2 and Rosie Krueger of District 1.
Photo by William Fraser

MONTPELIER — Back in the old days in Vermont, people who ran a municipality were called “the town fathers,” and they had one thing in common: They were all men. But that has been changing over the years. And in Montpelier — where the first female city council member was elected 40 years ago in 1976 — five out of seven members are women for the first time in history, as of Town Meeting Day.

Newcomer Rosie Krueger tipped the scale by beating contenders Alex Aldrich, Joe Kiernan and Thomas Gram for the District 1 seat left open by outgoing council member Tom Golonka. The others who were sworn in filled seats that had previously been held by women.

The complete City Council lineup is Dona Bate, District 1; Rosie Krueger, District 1; Jean Olson, District 2; Anne Watson, District 2; Ashley Hill, District 3 and Justin Turcotte District 3. Also, don’t forget Mayor John Hollar, who is considered to be a council member as well as mayor.

Ironically, the three female council members who were sworn in coincidentally took the oath on International Women’s Day, Wednesday, March 8.

After hearing comments and seeing posts on social media proclaiming this to be the beginning of a new dawn of female leadership, The Bridge asked City Manager William Fraser about the history of women holding seats of power on City Council. According to Fraser by email, “The first female council member elected was Jan Abair in 1976. She was quickly joined by Sally Rice as a second member. In 1987 Sally Rice was elected as the first woman mayor, and joined by council members Harriet Slaybaugh and Ann Cummings for the first three-female council.

Three women on the council re-occurred very frequently after that, but always with the mayor (Sally Rice, Ann Cummings, Mary Hooper) as one of the three. It was only in 2011, however, when the first female council majority of four was elected (Mayor Mary Hooper, Nancy Sherman, Sarah Jarvis and Angela Timpone). Then, a four-female majority (Dona Bate, Anne Watson, Jessica Edgerly-Walsh and Jean Olson) occurred again in 2016 when Olson was appointed to fill Thierry Guerlain’s seat and was subsequently elected in her own right. This was the first group of either three or four females on the council that did not include the mayor. This new group is the first five-woman council in the city’s history, also with the mayor not being one of the five.

“It was very nice and symbolic that the first meeting was on the Women’s Day,” Fraser stated. “I think it means that Montpelier thinks progressively and is open to all candidates based on their abilities. Women have traditionally done well in elections here. Note that we also have women as state representative and state senator.”

Fraser went on to note that it is great for the community to set this example. “As a father of two daughters I think it sets a wonderful standard. As a father of two sons I think it creates a good message that everyone is equal and valuable,” he said.

Watson also said it is good for women to model leadership roles. “I believe it’s very important that the young women in our community have plentiful examples of female leaders to look up to. I’m glad that so many women stepped up to run! The really notable case here is Rosie, because she beat out three men! A woman was destined to win both districts 2 and 3.” She also noted that the three women sworn in were all young — under the age of 36.

Turcotte said he has appreciated the guidance from women leaders over the years. “Many of my most cherished mentors and role models have been women. We are lucky to have such engaged and informed candidates and voters in Montpelier. I think most people look at issues, personal history, personal relationships, diplomacy and a candidate’s track record,” Turcotte stated, adding, “I love breaking records. Let’s go for six next year!”

Mayor Hollar also expressed appreciation for the presence of more women in seats of power. “Women are underrepresented in elected positions in Vermont, so it is great that Montpelier is taking a leadership role in addressing this discrepancy. We were fortunate to have many good candidates run for city council, and I congratulate Anne, Rosie and Ashley on their elections,” he wrote to The Bridge.

More important that their gender, though, are their individual qualities, Fraser pointed out, a point of view echoed by Rosie Krueger. She wrote to The Bridge, “Each council member brings his or her own background and expertise to the job — our genders play a small role in that, as part of the life experience we bring. However, given that the major issues facing the council right now are things like taxes, housing and infrastructure — not gender-specific issues — I’m not sure going from four women to five women on the council will mean much of a change by itself.”

However, Krueger admitted that having a strong female role model affected her choice to (successfully) run for a traditionally male-dominated position. “I did decide to get involved in part after watching Clinton lose in November,” Krueger stated. “We have a pretty thin bench of women in elected office, in Congress and as governors, who are ready to run for president next time. I know that the only way to solve that problem and expand the bench is for smart and dedicated women to start putting themselves out there to run for local office.” Krueger said she does not plan to run for higher office, but, she said, adding a female voice to the council may give her a chance to contribute to the community and “do some good work.”

But Bate, being of a generation where responsible adult women couldn’t take out their own bank loans, get a credit card or buy a house, placed greater weight on the bigger gender majority in the house. “As one who participated in women’s consciousness-raising in the 1970s, who did my first march on Washington D.C. in the 1980s and who has stood before many all-male councils, boards and committees; it is a big deal. It’s also disappointing to feel this in 2017, nearly 50 years after I joined the efforts to bring women equality and respect.”

Bate went on to remind Bridge readers of the importance of gender equality: “Equality in legal rights, respect for authority; eliminating sexual harassment and violence; equal education opportunities; and equal pay and benefits.  Many aspects of equal rights have been made into laws. Many aspects of equal value, respect and treatment have been woven into our institutions and daily behaviors. Many have not. When it becomes the norm for the majority of leadership positions in government, business and education to be held by women, then it will no longer be a big deal. Meanwhile I’ll celebrate every expression of more equal representation and participation of women.”

Bate then noted that having women in a group will only make a difference if those women support one another and are willing to listen to opposing views. “We have an opportunity to influence how the city operates, as well as what the city does. I  encourage others — male and female — to join my celebration of social progress and rally for more equality and respect for all,” Bate stated.