October 23, 2021

From suffragist to candidate

Women continue making inroads into politics, elected positions

Shenandoah Briere/staff reporter

Legislator Linda Jones (R-Homer), second from left, listens as Cortlandville resident Pam Jenkins addresses the Cortland County Legislature Thursday during its meeting. Jones and Ann Homer (D- Cortland), at right, are just two of six women on the Legislature — the most women in 20 years.

One hundred years after the passage of the 19th Amendment — the women’s right to vote — women are ushering in new waves of candidacy in unprecedented numbers.

Thirty-seven of Cortland County’s 138 elected leaders — not counting highway superintendents and coroners — are women. That’s 27%, and up from 17% in 1999, or 24 of 140 elected leaders.

Those numbers are ahead of the national picture, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University: 20.6% of Congress, 23.7% of governors and 25.4% of state legislators are women.

In the 2018 elections, 255 women ran for congressional office, with Democrats taking 47% of their 93 seats and Republicans taking 24% of their 13 seats.

It was deemed the year of the woman by many media sources, a label once reserved for 1992.

“But 2018 shares the most in common with 1992, when 11 women ran as major party candidates for the Senate and five were elected and 106 women ran for the House, with 23 percent winning,” said Elaine Kamarck, the founding director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings
Institution, in a piece on the 2018 election.

In Cortland County, more women are finding the opportunity and support to run, county officials said. In fact, Cuyler and Freetown each have four elected women, including supervisors, justices and town council. Both towns have six elected leaders.

Six women hold seats on the legislature — 35% of the 17-seat body — the most in 20 years.

It’s those same officials who agree the future is becoming more female.

A voter, a candidate, a choice

A woman’s right to vote came in 1919, but women didn’t cast ballots until the 1920 election. Until 1970, women were less likely to vote than men, and more likely to vote the same way as the men in their lives, said Robert Spitzer, a SUNY Cortland political science professor.

“There was this prevalent attitude that politics is a man’s place,” he said. “Over the decades, women voting rates increased.”

During the 1980 election “women voting turnout rates equaled those of men,” he said. Women diverged from men in their stances and ideologies, too.

Women began supporting government assistance strongly and became more against spending money on war, Spitzer said.

“Women’s voting rates continued to increase since 1980 and women have voted in larger numbers since them,” Spitzer said.

That just voting. Running for office was a challenge, too, Spitzer said.

“It was more difficult for them to run and win,” he said. “There was a lingering feeling that women weren’t up to the job.”

That was until the 1990s.

“You began to see a much more concentrated help of people raising money for women to run for office,” Spitzer said. “We saw in the 2016 and 2018 elections many more women running and more women are getting elected.”

It’s gotten to a point where being a female candidate is a bit of an advantage, he said, as more fundraisers and supporters step forward. “There’s a feeling that women may have a better chance of getting elected.”

“I think it’s getting easier,” said Cortland County Legislator Linda Jones (R-Homer), who was first elected in 2015. “I think you’re starting to see more women in politics.”

In Cortland County

Jones is the Legislature’s majority leader; Sandra Price (DVirgil, Harford) is its minority leader.

It’s a first for the Legislature to have women holding both positions. Other legislators, most of them men, voted for them.

Price, who first took office in 1984, said she probably wouldn’t have been able to run had it not been for the women who came before her, including former Homer Mayor Mary Alice Bellardini and Legislator Mary Contento.

“Those women had already been there, paved the way and shown that they had a good head on their shoulders and could make decisions side by side with men,” she said. “I have to give all those women and people who fought, not only for me to vote but for me to be an elected official, credit.”

But Price noted how she’s felt that she’s always been treated with respect by her male counterparts.


Notable firsts for women in politics

1887 — Susanna Salter becomes America’s first female mayor, of Argonia, Kansas.
1894 — Three women from Colorado, become the first female state legislators: Clara Cressingham, Carrie C. Holly and Frances Klock.
1925 — Nellie Tayloe Ross becomes America’s first female governor, of Wyoming.
1932 — Hattie Wyatt Caraway becomes the first female elected to the Senate and chairwoman of a senate committee.
1941 — Susan West is the first woman on the Cortland County Board of Supervisors.
1949 — Burnita Shelton Matthews becomes the first woman to serve as a federal district judge.
1970 — Florence Fitzgerald becomes the first chairwoman of the Cortland County Board of Supervisors.
1981 — Sandra Day O’Connor becomes the first female Supreme Court Justice.
1985 — Judith Riehlman becomes the first woman to bethe Cortland County Clerk.
2006 — Marilyn Brown becomes the first chairwoman of the Cortland County Legislature.
2016 — Hillary Clinton becomes the first woman to get a major party presidential nomination.
2018 — Record number of women—118—elected to Congress
2019 — Six women have announced their presidential candidacies, the first time more than two women competed in the same major party’s presidential primary.

SOURCES: Cortland County Historian Eric Mulvihill, www.cawp.rutgers.edu/facts/milestones-for-women and www.usatoday.com.


However, the county still has a ways to go, Jones said. She was the only woman Republican during her first term and she realized her party has leaned more toward having men run. Whenever she heard discussion over who should run, it was always a man’s name.

“I think if you looked at statistics nationally at a federal level, you’d find more female Democrats,” she said.

“Women are not equally represented,” said Tim Perfetti, the Cortland County Democratic chairman.

The U.S. Census reports 51.5% of Cortland County’s 48,334 residents were women in 2017.

If there was equal representation, he said, “There should be nine women and eight men.”

Without that representation, a huge chunk of the population doesn’t get the voice it deserves, Jones said.

“There’s a wealth of extraordinary women in the county who never think of running for office and worse, they’ve never been asked,” she said. “It was always the husbands that were asked.”

The importance of women in politics

“Women are highly educated, women graduate in higher numbers than men,” Spitzer said. “It’s a large pool of potential knowledge that is being slighted or ignored if women aren’t running.”

And it’s not just having them run — it’s getting them elected and getting their voices heard.

Jones said when she was first elected and was the only female Republican legislator, men often talked over her.

“I would tell any woman that’s running that you are a minority and that as a minority you will have to work twice as hard,” she said. “You will have to work harder to be heard.”

She recruited Ann Homer (D-Cortland) and Kelly Preston (R-Homer) to run and doing so gave women more voice. Being heard is important, but women approach issues differently, too, Jones said.

Political science research has found just that.

“Women are more willing to compromise and reach across the aisle,” Spitzer said. “That’s a sign of good governance.”

However, not everyone agrees there should be topics only women talk on.

“I wouldn’t say that there are any issues they are obligated to address,” Spitzer said.

However, he said there might be topics women are more interested or invested in, like reproductive rights.

“Because women are more directly affected by those issues,” he said.

However, Perfetti said women should have a much larger voice, if not the only voice, on those topics because it does affect them.

Jones said men need to be included on topics like reproductive rights and equal pay because it can be an educating moment.

“I don’t feel there’s any topic that should be one way or another,” Jones said. “I think men need to hear the discussions, be in on the discussions and understand things that may not even be on their minds.”

“Women are sensitive to people issues,” Price said. “However, I have seen men be as sensitive to them as women.”

More women in politics

Women who held elected positions in the 1940s and 1950s often ended up there because their husband died and the party wanted someone to finish the term, Spitzer said.

That’s changed.

Women are pushing into politics at substantial rates because they want things, Perfetti said.

“I think women are feeling like there is an onslaught against them right now and I don’t say that lightly,” he said. “They’ve kicked the door open, god bless them. They’re now going after things they’re entitled to, being an apart of the legislative process is important to that.”

Women are getting more respect now in office, possibly inspiring more of them to run, Spitzer said. It helps that many women have paved the way. Note Hillary Clinton.

“There is reason to believe that the fact that she was a woman may have been something of an impediment as candidate, but she helped pave the way for women running for the presidency,” Spitzer said.

That will continue, Spitzer said, but it happens at the local level first.

“Since more women are in the pipeline, you might say there will undoubtedly be more women running for higher officers — governor, senator, president,” Spitzer said.

Women no longer have to pick between being in the kitchen or the boardroom, Price said. They can have both.

“Without that right to vote, that right to be a candidate, that right to be a county legislator, it would be very sad,” Price said. “It would be very sad to be stuck at home like it was 100 years ago. We’re seeing more and more women interested in running and that’s good.”