Claiming a Vote: Women Legislators of Maryland
The General Assembly

By Kathy Postel Kretman and Gregory G. Lebel
January 1, 1991


History of the Women Legislators of Maryland
1965 - 1990


The Women Legislators of Maryland was founded in 1972. One of the earliest statewide organizations of its kind, the Women Legislators -- "Women 's Caucus" as it is informally known -- was the result of several facts of life in Maryland and in the nation at large having a significant impact on women in public life.

In the early seventies, women were beginning to make political gains nationally. More women were being elected to statewide office and they were beginning to feel the need for stronger ties to each other both in their states and with women in other parts of the country. This new found political potential and its long-term implications were gradually being recognized in the male-dominated state legislatures. The reactions of long-time legislators to this invasion of their mostly-men's club was to ignore it wherever possible. They attempted to maintain their domination by limiting women's access to power, and, whenever possible, by making women who sought power uncomfortable in their pursuit.

The Maryland General Assembly was no exception to this national trend.

Meeting the Challenge: 1965-1973

Growing out of the National Order of Women Legislators (OWL), the Women Legislators was designed by its founders to meet the needs and challenges they faced in Maryland. The national organization was composed of women legislators and their predecessors and its purpose was to foster cooperation among women holding state legislative office, and to increase political participation by all women. Early on, the Maryland chapter distinguished itself by placing greater emphasis on legislative issues such as state divorce laws and actively encouraging women to seek elective office. But this legislative focus was, in these early days, limited to discussion in the group's annual and then semi-annual meetings. Gradually, the number of members and frequency of meetings increased through the l960s. In 1965, the Maryland OWL chapter had doubled its membership to fifteen and increased its meetings to three per year. In 1971, the Maryland chapter boasted one hundred percent membership by women legislators and had garnered recognition from the national organization for its members' work in education, consumer protection, the environment, and medical expense issues. In 1973, Nancy Brown Burkheimer, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, was elected president of the National Organization of Women Legislators.

In the late sixties and early seventies, members of Maryland's Black community had also made strides in their representation in the General Assembly. In 1971, black members of the legislature organized a Black Caucus to more effectively promote the concerns and agendas of their members. This development, together with an infamous occurrence during the 1972 legislative session, spurred the women of Maryland into action.

The increasing presence of women in the Maryland legislature had begun to create some stresses and pressures. While their numbers and tenure had increased, women had been entirely shut out of key positions in both the Senate and the House. Delegate Pauline Menes pointed out this lack of representation when she criticized her party's leadership for their failure to appoint any women to the key standing committees in the House of Delegates. The Speaker of the House, Thomas Hunter Lowe, responded by appointing Delegate Menes "Chairman of the Ladies' Rest Room Committee."

Delegate Menes recognized, however, that this obvious slight could be put to her advantage. She interpreted her appointment as committee chair as grounds for her attendance at the weekly leadership meetings held by the Speaker and President of the Senate. She was refused admittance because her presence would "make the men feel uncomfortable" and since there was "really no reason for the Chairman of the Ladies' Rest Room Committee to attend anyway."

This incident sparked a vigorous debate among the women legislators concerning the lack of recognition of women legislators in Maryland and the legislature's history of ignoring its women members. Neither Senator Mary Nock, who held the title of President Pro Tem, nor Senator Margaret Schweinhaut, who chaired the Committee on Executive Nominations, had been included in that chamber's leadership meetings. In fact, Nock had never been invited to attend and Schweinhaut saw the only invitation she ever received to one of the meetings withdrawn by an embarrassed secretary with the explanation that she was new and had invited the Senator by mistake.

As Maryland's women legislators found grounds for discontent in the General Assembly, they also turned their attention to the executive branch, where they found equally appalling disparities among men and women on appointed commissions, boards, and other important posts in Maryland government.

In February, 1972, acting on a resolution by Senator Rosalie Abrams that the women in the legislature "form a Women's Caucus to meet regularly" and to "push for the recognition of women and their abilities," the women created the Women Legislators of Maryland. The members of the fledgling organization immediately issued a press release announcing their creation followed by a resolution urging both the governor and the legislature to "take positive steps to remedy the present inequities in the recognition of women in higher levels of Maryland government."

One result of their activities was an article in the Washington Post on March 1, 1972, in which the women legislators were quoted as being "bitter about being excluded from the leadership, bitter about the snickers and jokes...that accompany bills or debates concerning women's rights, and bitter about the club's 'protect our womenfolk' attitude."

A few weeks later, either unaware or lacking understanding of the implications of recent actions by the women in his chamber, Speaker Lowe presented Delegate Menes with a toilet seat covered with a muskrat pelt. This apparent attempt at humor took place during a session of the House of Delegates, and Menes took the opportunity to address the House membership, noting that her acceptance of the Speaker's gift "occasioned the first time I can recall one of the women members being on the rostrum, and that is a first I appreciate."

In spite of the Speaker's ongoing attempts at humor, the die had clearly been cast. The women had created their own Caucus and had gotten some press attention as a result. By the end of the session, a woman had been appointed to chair the House Ethics Committee, and another had been appointed to the General Assembly's interim body, the Legislative Council. Interpreted by many as token appointments, these appointments were nevertheless harbingers of successes to come.

The Caucus Takes Shape: 1974 - 1976

The 1974 statewide elections resulted in an increase in women elected to the legislature from thirteen to nineteen, an increase of almost fifty percent in women members. Immediately, this newly-enervated group turned its attention as a Caucus to pending legislative issues. The women also established as an early priority the status of women in Maryland's higher education system. Delegate Menes was elected the first President of the Caucus and the members agreed to meet weekly during the session and biweekly in the interim.

Early success and recognition for the new Caucus was achieved in part through legislation sponsored by Delegate Helen Koss. Koss' bill establishing a pilot center for displaced homemakers in Baltimore County under the auspices of the state's Department of Human Resources was passed in the 1976 session. Senate President Steny Hoyer, sponsor of successful legislation to reform the state's rape laws, credited the women legislators' support and efforts as instrumental in his bill's success.

Following their initial session as an organized entity, and having tasted some important victories, the women continued to meet in the interim to set legislative priorities and develop procedures and protocols for their activities. Two key decisions were made during the meetings that would have long-term effects on the Caucus' activities. In considering the means by which their legislative priorities would be established, the group decided to limit the number and to avoid taking a position on controversial issues that could prove divisive to the group.

After consulting with a cross section of women's groups, including the League of Women Voters, Maryland Women's Political Caucus, American Association of University Women, and the Maryland chapter of the National Organization for Women, the Women Legislators established its first list of legislative priorities for the upcoming 1977 session. They included property rights; pension and insurance equity; protection for battered spouses; strengthening the state's Human Rights Commission; and continuing reform of rape statutes. At the same time, the Women Legislators established two extra legislative oversight issues: ending discrimination against women in higher education, and increasing the number of women on Maryland's boards and commissions.

Representatives of the Women Legislators took their case to Governor Marvin Mandel in the summer of 1976. Decrying the low number of women in appointed positions in the state, the delegation secured the Governor's commitment to accept their recommendations for appointments to vacancies in the Executive branch.

The Women Legislators also began at this first interim session an outreach program that was to become a hallmark of its ongoing success. The members decided to invite representatives of women's groups to meet with them, discuss their concerns, and exchange ideas. Women business leaders and college presidents were among the early groups invited to meet with the Women Legislators in a practice that continues to the present.

Gradually the women of the Maryland legislature began to gain recognition in many areas, and meet resistance in others. The Baltimore Sun ran a flattering story of the Caucus's development and achievements on the front page of its Sunday "Local" section in February, 1977. Reporter Donald Kimmelman noted that Delegate Ann Hull had been appointed to the largely honorary position of Speaker Pro Tem, a position that allowed her access to the leadership meetings from which Menes had been barred only five years earlier. Sometimes interpreted as a token appointment to assuage the women in the House, her appointment was, nevertheless, a dramatic change from Menes' earlier experience.

But among some groups -- the male legislators especially -- the importance of the women's gains were minimized. A male legislator who requested anonymity told Kimmelman in the Sun article that none of the women in the legislature in 1977 could handle a major committee chairmanship. His reasoning was straightforward. "They've got the brains," he allowed, "but not the personality. You've got to have a dominant personality that brings your committee along with you. You can't be a lady."

This anonymous assessment was presented in a different light in the same article. Janet Hoffman, a twenty-year veteran lobbyist in the General Assembly, opined, "the people who hold positions of leadership in Annapolis generally got there 'by being part of a team.' They are leaders of various political blocs that share the power of the legislature." She noted that resistance among men in the legislative body to look to a woman as a leader was retarding the women's ability to assert control over the votes of others as well as their own.

To be sure, women were at this point developing recognized areas of expertise on their own. Menes was often acknowledged for her expertise in prison issues. Senator Rosalie Abrams and Delegate Lucille Maurer, two long-term members of the General Assembly, were recognized for their knowledge of health and education issues respectively.

Yet women continued to be seen as outsiders, according to Delegate Bert Booth, who noted that the leadership saw "women as a threat just as they once saw Blacks as a threat. It's just another group coming in." But as the players discussed the prospects and implications of the women's role in the legislative process, the Caucus began to face the issues that confront growing organizations.

Developing An Organizational Identity: 1976-1979

Two early issues for the newly formed caucus involved the basics - space and staff. The Caucus rotated the sites of their regular meetings among the offices of their members. While the meeting sites were convenient, there was a great deal of difficulty in setting times for the group's business in an already crowded legislative day. By 1976, the staffing issue was becoming more of a priority. Caucus members realized that without staff support their ability to produce material, track legislative activity, and disseminate information was severely limiting their effectiveness as a group. President Menes entered into negotiations with the Ms. Foundation for Women, Inc. and won a grant for the establishment of an internship program in conjuction with the Eagleton Institute's Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Under the direction of Dr. Marianne Alexander, interns from several of Maryland's colleges and universities would identify, analyze, and track proposed legislation affecting women, especially those bills dealing with legislative priorities established by the Caucus. These first interns created a legislative tracking chart that was to become a daily product of the Women Legislators during the session, with wide distribution both in the Maryland General Assembly and to groups and organizations outside the legislative branch.

Under Menes' leadership, the Women legislators developed procedures for establishing and promoting its legislative priorities. At this time the Women Legislators also established means by which it would promote it priorities on the floor of the House and Senate. As with any group with a wide-ranging membership, the Caucus required strategies for working on different issues of varying importance and with diverse chances for success. The women established a four-level strategy of alternative Caucus action:

The Caucus created a system in which an increasing number of women legislators representing disparate communities, constituencies, and political philosophies could agree on matters of mutual concern and work harmoniously to achieve results in those areas. It also allowed for the avoidance of contentious issues that could divert the efforts of the members from the over-arching goals of promoting the general fortune of women in the legislature, in the government as a whole, and throughout the state of Maryland.

As the Women Legislators self-defined role in the ongoing legislative process grew, so did the need for a source of financial support for its activities. In 1978, the women decided to embark on their first foray into fund raising. The first event was co-sponsored with the Women's National Education Fund (WNEF). Although it was not an overwhelming financial success, a small amount of money was raised and shared with the WNEF.

The next year, the group sponsored a truly home-grown event on its own. Members, their secretaries, families and friends mailed invitations and prepared the refreshments. With Sarah Weddington from President Jimmy Carter's White House staff as their featured speaker, they raised more money. Subsequent events have been turned over to professional event consultants and caterers. As the Caucus has learned the finer points of money raising, the proceeds have increased exponentially and the fund raiser is now a staple of the Women Legislators' annual program.

Nineteen seventy-nine saw an increase in the sophistication of the Women Legislators' outlook and methods. The tracking chart had by this time evolved into a daily Issue Report with a wide distribution and a reputation for accuracy and timeliness. The establishment of another statewide organization called the Elected Women of Maryland and the election of Delegate Bert Booth as its first president presented the Women's Caucus with a means to increase its networking function with women in other areas of government.

As the Women Legislators began to establish itself and develop confidence as a power broker in the legislature, its leadership began to experiment with other methods of bringing its agenda to the attention of fellow legislators, the Executive Branch, and the general public. Moving its legislative priorities selection process to the beginning of the legislative session put the group in a proactive rather than reactive position relative to the state's legislative agenda. This also presented the women with the opportunity to present an agenda via the media. A press conference at the beginning of the session, when media and public interest were at a peak, was a logical step for the leadership of the Women Legislators in 1979. But, like their fund raising efforts, initial attempts required a tremendous amount of work in coping with and learning a process that was second nature to more established groups. This first news conference was, judging from attendance and resulting media coverage, a success beyond their wildest hopes. But getting there was a time consuming learning process. The members decided as a group to alert the media to the adverse impact of federal budget cuts on women in the state of Maryland. Working with representatives of the state's departments of Health and Mental Hygiene and Human Resources, they developed an impact statement and called a press conference. Delegates Perkins and Goldwater and their secretaries spent innumerable hours preparing for the press conference that was inadvertently scheduled during the morning delegation meetings, thereby incurring the irritation of delegation chairs from around the state. Despite their inexperience, the press conference drew a large crowd of media and legislators and received significant play in the state's newspapers and on local radio and television.

Increasing In Numbers and Influence: 1980-1990

As the 1980s dawned, the fortunes of women nationally and in Maryland began to change. More and more women were being elected to state legislatures, and in Maryland, the women legislators were learning to operate as a center of influence, however limited, in Annapolis. President Menes initiated the practice of meeting with incoming Governor Harry Hughes to discuss her organization's legislative priorities for the upcoming session as well as its recommendations for women appointees to state commissions and administrative positions.

Under President Marilyn Goldwater in 1980 and 1981, legislative priorities continued to focus on the economic well-being, health, and safety of Maryland's women. Dealing with family violence, continued reform of the state's rape and sexual offense legislation, and strengthening of marital property laws topped the list of priorities in the early 1980s.

Delegate Bert Booth succeeded Goldwater in 1981 to head the organization's twenty-five delegates and three senators. As President, Booth hired an administrative aide for the organization. Angela Beltram, former Chair of the Howard County Planning Board, supervised interns and coordinated the groups legislative activities from "office space" in the hall outside the second-floor lounge in the Legislative Services Building.

As Delegate Ida Ruben succeeded to the Presidency, the Women Legislators continued to focus on legislative priorities. Meanwhile, they continued to encourage the Governor to consider women for state positions, especially in the court system and for high-level administrative positions in the educational system. Successive governors were cooperative and eager to receive input from the women, but didn't always take their advice when final appointments were made. Nevertheless, the voice of the Women Legislators was being heard in the Governor's office.

In 1983, Delegate Ruben took the occasion of her reelection as President to stress the successes of the organization. Ruben emphasized in a press release the networking function of the Women Legislators of Maryland and the growth of its membership to thirty seven members. During her term, Ruben commissioned a twenty-minute videotape presentation describing the origins of the Women Legislators and showcasing Maryland's women legislators.

The Maryland women were achieving considerable visibility nationally as women lawmakers in other states looked to the Caucus as a model for creating their own organizations. By mid-decade, the Women Legislators recognized the need to toughen its image as a player in Maryland politics. Occasioned by a local newspaper article noting that the women were not "power players," President Anne Perkins decided to reinstate press conferences as a means of getting the agenda on the table and in front of the public. The group greatly increased its statewide media visibility during the 1985 session, distributing press advisories outlining legislative priorities, commending the Governor for his support, announcing public relations events, and declaring success for the agenda as the session drew to a close. In a first, the Women Legislators joined forces with the Black Caucus in a successful effort to increase funding for programs dealing with teenage pregnancy, maternal health, and infant mortality.

Delegate Paula Hollinger was selected to succeed Delegate Perkins in 1986. With Hollinger at its helm, the Caucus continued to push for its legislative priorities, sought media coverage for its successes, and expanded its use of interns in accomplishing its goals. Legislative priorities continued to focus on economic, health, and safety issues. Meanwhile, insurance equity, child care issues, and prison reform were included in the Women Legislators' priority areas. Preservation of Medicaid funding for abortion held a unique place in the organization's agenda. The group had agreed several years earlier that Medicaid funding and reproductive rights were separate issues. While the group was far from consensus on the question of Medicaid funding for abortion for poor women, they agreed to the release of a position statement in support of continued funding with a disclaimer noting which members did not support the majority position.

For the first time, as they approached the 1987 session, the women considered their role in the selection of the House and Senate leadership. Although they did not endorse any one candidate, they did support Speaker Clayton Mitchell and President Mike Miller when their nominations became assured. The ongoing discussion with the leaders brought about commitments to President Hollinger of positions for women in the new leadership group.

Mitchell met with Hollinger several times prior to the start of the session and confirmed that the majority whip position, chairmanship of the Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee, and numerous standing subcommittee and statutory committees would be in the hands of women. Meanwhile, the Republicans in the House of Delegates elected Delegate Ellen Sauerbrey Minority Leader. Senate President Miller also met with the women at their annual retreat and announced his appointment of Senators Hoffman and Schweinhaut to leadership positions.

Hollinger presided over the first challenge to the group's long standing position to take no official position on reproductive rights. As the national tide seemed to be shifting in favor of "right to life" groups, tensions began to mount in women's groups as the question of access to legal abortion services rose in the public's view. The choice of legislative priorities required a four-fifths majority for passage, according to caucus procedures. A move was made to reduce the level of majority needed to endorse legislative priorities from four-fifths to two-thirds, with the intent being to add reproductive rights to the group's legislative priorities list. The members voted down the proposal, although the majority were pro-choice, apparently responding to President Hollinger's plea for member unity. Seeing the abortion issue as one that had the potential to split the group, Hollinger reminded her colleagues that, "The Caucus is more important than any one issue." Delegate Nancy Kopp noted that the four-fifths rule had been arrived at as a compromise with which all members were comfortable. The motion lost with ten voting for; twelve voting against; and two abstentions.

As Susan Buswell prepared to take over the reigns from Hollinger, the organization looked back on a year when the group put pressure on the presidents of the state's colleges and universities to place more women in full-time faculty and dean's positions, and several legislative successes in child care consolidation and regulatory reform.

It was in 1989 that the Women Legislators tasted its first outright, highly-visible success on the floor of the General Assembly. Mounting an impressive legislative lobbying campaign, the women buttonholed their fellow lawmakers, cajoled, compromised and prevailed in a successful effort to defeat a bill that they saw as seriously detrimental to the well being of divorced women. The bill, defeated in the House of Delegates by a wide margin, occasioned press coverage and acknowledgement by the leadership of the House as well as the sponsor of the defeated bill that the Women Legislators had become a force to be reckoned with in the General Assembly.

In part, this was the result of the dramatic increase in the sheer numbers or women in the legislature. In 1989, there were forty-two women in the General Assembly -- thirty-six in the 141-member House and six in the 47-member Senate. But, beyond their growing numbers, the women had learned to play the power game with their colleagues. As these increases made them the largest single voting bloc in the House, the women were able to unite in opposition to the bill, develop a strategy, and carry it to completion. The result was the first bill in the session to be defeated after being reported favorably out of committee -- a rare occurrence in the Maryland House of Delegates in any year. But Buswell put the victory in perspective, noting to the media that the bill should have been defeated in committee rather than on the floor. Hollinger also expressed a desire to see the women passing legislation rather than killing it.

Nevertheless, the session was very much a coming of age for the Women Legislators of Maryland as they utilized their strengths strategically and got media coverage as a bonus for their efforts. The women once again joined forces with the Black Caucus in announcing a boycott of local private clubs that restricted full membership to white males. The boycott was successful and the clubs re-wrote their membership rules removing the restrictions.

In 1990, the Women Legislators of Maryland looked back over almost twenty years of growth. Increased numbers, organizational maturation combined to produce a caucus whose members were often at the center of legislative activity. Delegate Mary Boergers succeeded to the presidency of the organization as it faced some of its most challenging tasks. The group saw some of its members decide to seek office in other areas of government. This expanded potential for women in politics was due in no small measure to the inroads made by the Women's Caucus. Meanwhile, the group continued the debate around its organizational goals. As the abortion issue was remanded to the states by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Caucus once again struggled with the implications of this development on themselves as women lawmakers, on their constituents, and on their organization.

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