Vermont's all-male congressional delegation at a 2017 rally in Hardwick
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Cindy Hyde-Smith to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday. When she takes office on April 1, Vermont will become the only state in the union to have never sent a woman to Congress.
Hyde-Smith is Mississippi's GOP agriculture and commerce commissioner. She's set to replace Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who announced his retirement earlier this month due to continuing health issues.
Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics keeps track of female representation and reports that Vermont and Mississippi were, until now, the only states to never send a woman to Congress.
"It's sad that we're last. We should be embarrassed to be last," said Ruth Hardy, executive director of Emerge Vermont, a nonprofit that trains and promotes Democratic women considering running for office. "I appreciate the work of our congressional delegation, but it's past time for us to send a woman to Washington."
"This is exactly why we started Emerge Vermont," said Rep. Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington), "to build a strong bench of women in politics."
Vermont's place at the bottom is in stark contrast to neighboring New Hampshire, which has an all-female congressional delegation: Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, and Democratic Reps. Annie Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter. RepresentWomen, a nonpartisan advocacy group working to reduce the gender imbalance of American politics, gave New Hampshire a grade of "A" and assigned a "D" to Vermont, largely because of the state's failure to elect women to Congress.
"This is not a distinction to be proud of, but I actually feel optimistic about the future," said Cary Brown, executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women. "I think we're poised really well. Women are flying up the ranks politically. We don't have to worry about retaining that distinction for long."
Her optimism is borne out in other numbers from Rutgers. It puts Vermont in a first-place tie with Arizona for female representation in the state legislature, 40 percent of whose members are women. Last week, when Vermont House committees were finalizing work on tax, budget and capital bills, and dealing with an unexpected $28 million windfall from tobacco companies, all of the key committee chairs were women — and that fact basically went unnoticed.
There are two factors that have limited opportunities for Vermont to send women to Washington, D.C. The state has only three congressional seats, and it has amassed an unusual amount of seniority. Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) is the junior member of the delegation, and he's been in Congress for 12 years. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has been in the Senate since 1975. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has been a congressman or senator since 1991. Their long tenures have created a bottleneck for women.
"There's something to be said for seniority," Hardy noted. "But there's a lot to be said for diversity in representation. Other voices need to be heard."
Someday, we will elect a woman to Congress. Maybe even two or three.
But Vermont will always be last among the states — just as the Boston Red Sox will forever be the last baseball team to integrate. It's not a point of pride for a state with a reputation for openness and equity.