Women hold just 30 of 113 seats in the General Assembly

Apr 29, 2013

With the YWCA Rhode Island set to hold its fifth annual Women Holding Office celebration this evening at the Kirkbrae Country Club, it's a good time to revisit the under-representation of women in Rhode Island politics.

Rhode Island has never elected a female governor or senator, and female lawmakers compose far less than a third of the General Assembly, with just 30 of 113-members: 9 of 38 senators, and 21 of 75 representatives.

Of those female lawmakers, only two are Republicans: Representatives Doreen Costa and Patricia Morgan.

There have been strides: Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed and Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts are the first women to hold those posts, and state Treasurer Gina Raimondo has attracted national attention on her way to a likely run for governor next year.

Progress has also been made in municipal government over the last year.

-- Sandra Cano was the leading vote-getter among 11 Pawtucket School Committee candidates, highlighting a local boomlet in Colombian politics.

-- Community activist Suzy Alba won a seat on the Smithfield Town Council.

-- Community activist Carolyn Mark landed a seat on the East Greenwich School Committee.

Former Brown professor Jennifer Lawless, who once unsuccessfully challenged Congressman Jim Langevin, offered this analysis in 2011 on the hurdles facing women candidates, as reported by the BDH:

For working women with families, “the notion of running for office becomes a pretty unattractive third job,” Lawless said. And women who choose to wait until their kids are grown start too late to attain any high office, given the career ladder nature of American politics, she said.

Lawless compared the problem of self-perception to gender dynamics at universities. Citing a poll finding that about half of men who considered themselves unqualified had also thought about running for office, she argued that unfounded confidence can also be found in the classroom, where male students are more willing to talk about subjects they do not know well or opine on articles they have not read.

Lawless’s ultimate conclusion was that the only immediately rectifiable issue is lack of encouragement. “We have to actively recruit more women to run for office,” she said. “Having women in positions of power matters both substantively and symbolically.”

Meanwhile, tonight's YWCA event will highlight a documentary by former ProJo photographer John Freidah:

Women Holding Office: Rhode Island's Pioneers in Politics features Susan L. Farmer, secretary of state from 1983-86; Arlene Violet, state attorney general from 1985-87, who also is the first woman nationwide to be elected to that position; and Kathleen S. Connell, secretary of state from 1987-1992.

To preview the documentary, click here.

The keynoter for the event will be Boston city councilor Ayanna Pressley.