Claiming a Vote: Women Legislators of Maryland
The General Assembly

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


Today's Women Legislators of Maryland:
The Model

Ruth Mandel made this observation in 1978 in a report commissioned by the Women Legislators of Maryland. The members of the up-and-coming Caucus wanted to assess their first major initiative to provide support staff to assist them with their expanding responsibilities. The Women Legislators recognized early on the need to organize around mutual interests. Now it needed a structure in which to operate and the technical assistance to fulfill its mandate.

Today, when other groups have been forced to disband for lack of support and organization, the Women Legislators of Maryland has grown in membership, resources, and political strength. Key to the organization's success is the framework that has been established in which issues can be debated and policies refined, without losing sight of the overall mission: to improve public policy that affects women's lives and increase the number of women elected and appointed to public office in Maryland.

As the oldest women's organization in any state legislature in the United States, the Women Legislators of Maryland has benefitted from experience. The women who sit in the state assembly in 1990 have learned not only from their own successes and failures, but from those who came before them. The following section describes the Women Legislators of Maryland as it exists today -- the priorities, policies, procedures and programs that have been established to meet the needs of its growing membership.

The Maryland General Assembly: The Big Picture

Legislative authority in Maryland is exercised in the General Assembly, which consists of a 47-member Senate and a 141-member House of Delegates. The legislators serve four year terms and represent 47 legislative districts with one senator and three delegates from each district, The General Assembly meets in Annapolis annually for a 90-day session beginning in January. Maryland's state legislators are paid $24,000 per year.

At the beginning of each session, the presiding officers are elected, who in turn appoint the committee chairs and committee members. The General Assembly establishes the standing committees at that time. Currently, there are six standing committees in the Senate and seven in the House of Delegates. In addition to the standing committees, there are seven statutory committees whose joint membership is appointed by the presiding officers, and a Joint Protocol Committee of the two houses.

Since 1972, the proportion of women in the General Assembly has more than tripled, rising from 6% to 23% in 1991. According to the Center for the American Woman and Politics, Maryland ranks fifth in the country in the percentage of women in leadership positions in the state legislature. Although women comprise almost 28% of the leadership -- a significant increase over past years -- no woman has ever held the position of Speaker of the House or President of the Senate.

There is no doubt that the women lawmakers in Annapolis have gained in numbers and in appointments to leadership in the past two decades. One of the priorities of the coming decade will be to increase women's participation in leadership and committee chair assignments in both houses.

The Women Legislators of Maryland: The Group Within

The Women's Caucus has experienced expected as well as unpredictable challenges to its existence. Early on, the group had to face and overcome the overt sexism and paternalism that was a fact of every day life in the State House. As the Women Legislators has increased in size, its membership has become more diverse in interests and priorities, sometimes making the unity and cooperative spirit that have been the group's hallmark elusive goals. From an informal "support group" with no staff or financial resources of its own, it has evolved into a professionally managed, fiscally strong organization.

Despite many changes since the founding of the Women Legislators, the members have remained steadfast in their mandate: to research and develop legislation assisting women; to encourage the greater participation of women in Maryland government; and to communicate and cooperate with other women's organizations. The structure of the organization and its procedures have contribute to the achievement of these goals, and therefore merit special attention.


The Women Legislators has an excellent record of participation, as evidenced by the fact that since its inception only a handful of women senators and delegates have not joined. Currently, all 44 of the women serving in the General Assembly are members. Members in good standing -- those who have paid the annual $100 contribution -- are eligible to vote in any Caucus elections or deliberative sessions, or to serve in any elective positions. Generally, the Caucus meets once a week during the legislative session and committees meet as needed. Interim meetings are held at the discretion of the president. Twenty-five percent of the eligible members constitutes a quorum.

Officers and Elections

The officers of the Women Legislators consist of a president, president-elect, first vice-president, second vice-president, secretary, and treasurer. The officers are elected annually and assume their official duties at the close of the regular session. Nominations for officers are usually made by the president-appointed nominating committee or made from the floor at the annual meeting.

The officers of the Women Legislators, immediate past president, and the chairs of the Legislative and Endorsement Committees constitute the Executive Board. The Board has general supervision of the administrative and programmatic functions of the organization. The president presides at meetings, approves expenditures, and coordinates the work of the officers and committees.


The rules that govern the Women Legislators are purposely flexible to allow for organizational change, particularly with regard to the creation of new committees when deemed appropriate by the members and Executive Board. The standing committees, as defined in the by-laws, include Finance, Nominating, Legislative, and Endorsement. The current special committees, including By-Laws Review, Day Care, Higher Education, Honoring Maryland Women, and the Maryland Center for Political Leadership and Participation, have legislative and/or programmatic responsibilities. All committees, standing or special, are appointed by the president. The responsibilities of each committee are as follows:

Standing Committees

The three-member Finance Committee oversees the financial planning of the Women Legislators; proposes an annual budget; and authorizes the audit of the Treasurer's accounts at the close of the fiscal year. The Committee presents an audit report to the Women Legislators at the first meeting following the audit's completion.

The five-member Nominating Committee nominates one eligible person for each office to be filled, and reports its nominations to the membership for a vote.

The Legislative Committee, whose chairperson sits on the Executive Board, reviews legislative issues pending before the General Assembly and makes recommendations to the Women Legislators on actions to be taken.

The Endorsement Committee, chaired by the first vice-president, evaluates the qualifications of candidates for appointive offices within Maryland, and recommends endorsement action to the membership.

Special Committees

The Women Legislators established the By-Laws Review Committee in 1990 to examine the existing by-laws and recommend amendments for adoption by the membership.

One of the priority issues of the Women Legislators since its inception is the concern of the Day Care Committee. Available quality and affordable child care for Maryland families has continued to he the focus of this special legislative committee. In 1989, the Caucus joined with the Maryland Chamber of Commerce in creating the Child Care Challenge Award. A committee of representatives from state and local government, business, labor, and non-profit advocacy groups for children select a Maryland business that has been the most creative in designing personnel policies and procedures to help employees with child care. The winner of the annual award is recognized at the Caucus' annual fundraiser.

The disparity in the status of women faculty and administrators at Maryland public institutions of higher education first received attention from the Women Legislators in the 1970s. The Higher Education Committee was formed to eliminate discriminatory employment policies and practices in higher education and to actively support the hiring and promotion of women with comparable pay. The Committee continues to monitor the progress toward these ends, and makes the information available to the public through periodic reports. The Summary Report: Status of Women Faculty and Deans at Public Institutions of Higher Education in Maryland, published in 1990, is the second in a series of these studies.

As representatives of the Women Legislators, the Honoring Maryland Women Committee members work with the Maryland Commission for Women in selecting honorees for the annual Maryland Women's Hall of Fame.

The Maryland Center for Political Leadership and Participation Committee was formed in 1987 to assist the University of Maryland in establishing the Project for Women and Politics. Initially founded to encourage young women to prepare for careers in public office, the Project has since extended its scope to include other students, particularly those historically underrepresented in the political spectrum. The Committee has continued to play a major role in the development of the Project from a pilot initiative to what is now known as the Maryland Center for Political Leadership and Participation. In addition, the Women Legislators provides a unique opportunity for the Center's student interns and fellows to work directly with women in political office.

Legislation: Setting the Agenda

Creating a mechanism to achieve a commonality in legislative goals among representatives who serve an economically, socially and geographically diverse population is no small task. Even narrowing the focus to policies affecting women and families still leaves a wide array of issues open to debate, and, in some case, divisiveness. Which issues should be given priority? Which should be avoided for the sake of unity? Since its inception, the Women Legislators has made a concerted effort to refine both the process and the policies governing its legislative agenda. Thus far, this attention to process has enabled the members to overcome formidable obstacles that otherwise might have permanently polarized and fragmented the group.

Process: Translating the Agenda Into Action

Each year during the interim and first weeks of the General Assembly's session, the Caucus' Legislative Committee solicits recommendations for its legislative priorities from the membership. The next step, and one of the central components of the agenda-setting process, is the annual Women Legislators' Retreat, a day-and-a-half of both closed and open meetings held several weeks prior to the beginning of the session to deliberate, debate and decide on the group's legislative agenda. As part of the process, the Caucus invites other legislators, public officials and the public to speak on issues of concern for the upcoming session.

In addition to the open forum, the Women Legislators convenes a closed meeting in which legislative priorities are established. Twenty-five percent of the eligible members of the Women Legislators constitute the quorum for a vote on the legislative priorities. To ensure a degree of unanimity, the Women Legislators requires a three-fourths vote of those members present to select legislation for priority status. Moreover, in the interest of unity, the Women Legislators has brought into the process a non-member to facilitate the discussion among the members.

Once the priorities are established, each is assigned to a sub-committee of one or more members of the Women Legislators, whose responsibility it is to organize an appropriate lobbying effort, to track the legislation, and to report back to the group as a whole. All letters and testimony profered in the name of the Women Legislators must be approved by the President. Items that arise suddenly, that have not been identified as priorities, may be put on the agenda for presentation, discussion, voting and strategic planning at the next meeting, upon notification of all members.

The ability to monitor and track the newly introduced bills and to disseminate the information in a timely fashion to Caucus members is one of the strengths of the organization. Throughout the session, a weekly Legislative Report that tracks bills germane to the Caucus' legislative agenda is disseminated to the membership, other legislators, and subscribing groups and individuals.

In recent years, the Women Legislators has narrowed its focus to those issues on which it would have the greatest legislative impact. A number of factors are weighed before voting on the legislative priorities for the year, such as: which issues require the force of the Women Legislators as a unified block behind them; which issues would not be adequately addressed without the support and lobbying effort that the Women Legislators provides; which issues, because of their very nature, have the potential to polarize the Caucus, thus weakening its ability to carry out the overall objective of improving public policy affecting women and families. For example, in the 1990 session, the Women Legislators selected child care, domestic violence, family equity task force, mammography, and women and infant health as its legislative priorities.

Appointments of Women in Government: A Pro-Active Approach

To bridge the historical gap between the number of men and women in appointive positions in the judicial, legislative and executive branches of Maryland government, the Women Legislators has developed its own mechanism to identify qualified women applicants and actively support their appointments to the governor or, where appropriate, to the legislative leadership. The establishment of an Endorsement Committee as one of the Caucus' four standing committees demonstrates its long-term commitment to expanding the participation of women in appointive office.

The Endorsement Process: Getting Women Appointed

One of the benefits of the Women Legislators' outreach to Maryland women's organizations is the ability to identify greater numbers of women candidates for specific appointive positions. In addition to the ongoing communication with women's groups, the Caucus makes a special appeal in its Legislative Report for names of women interested in receiving the Women Legislators' endorsement for appointive positions in the state. The Caucus only endorses candidates who formally request support, and more than one candidate may receive endorsement. If the position is one for which members of only one political party are eligible or is a political party post, then only Caucus members of that party are allowed to participate in the process. Encouraging the appointment of women to the judicial bench, cabinet positions, higher education institutions, state commissions and boards, and to the legislative leadership is an essential part of the Women Legislators' mandate. Yet the Caucus has taken the position that qualified men who demonstrate a commitment and sensitivity to issues affecting women deserve consideration and support as well.

The Endorsement Committee plays a critical role in the endorsement process. As such, it is chaired by the Caucus' first vice-president and the members are appointed by the president. The Endorsement Committee is responsible for interviewing and screening applicants, notifying the membership of appointment openings, and recommending individual to the Caucus for endorsement. An applicant must receive the support of three-fourths of the voting members to receive an endorsement.

If the president determines it is not feasible to hold a Caucus meeting to consider a possible endorsement and majorities of the Endorsement Committee and Executive Committee recommend action, voting by ballots mailed to the membership is an acceptable alternative. Applicants formerly endorsed by the Women Legislators must reapply for consideration of a second endorsement.

Networking for Change: Providing a Focal Point for Maryland Women

Since its inception, the Women Legislators has made a concerted effort to reach out to the women of Maryland, seeking input on the issues of importance to them and their families. In the Caucus' early years, members quickly formed alliances with the civic and professional associations, such as the League of Women Voters, the Maryland Commission for Women, the Maryland Nurses Association, and the American Association of University Women. The long-standing relationships between Caucus members and these and other women's groups helped to determine both the legislative and oversight priorities of the women lawmakers. For example, one of the first oversight priorities of the Women Legislators was to end the discrimination against women in Maryland's higher education institutions. As a result, the Women Legislators established a working alliance with women college presidents and administrators that continues today.

On another front, the relationship that has evolved between the Caucus and women in the legal profession has helped to focus attention on legislation of particular importance to women in the state. Property rights, pension and insurance equity, protection of battered spouses and displaced homemakers, and reform of rape laws all required a basic knowledge of the legal issues involved. In the 1970s there was a noticeable lack of women legislators from the legal profession; yet much of the legislative agenda related to the judicial system in Maryland. Discrimination against women was rampant, both in terms of judicial appointments and in issues affecting women and children. Thus, the Caucus sought out women attorneys for advice and counsel, first on the pressing problems that they witnessed in their own law practices that could be remedied by new legislation; and, second, on the actual formulation of the bill itself. Reflecting on the Women Legislators' early years, Delegate Menes explains:

The informal bond that was created in the 1970s between the women in the General Assembly and the women in the legal profession has continued to benefit both groups. While the Women Legislators no longer needs to seek external legal advice, a strong alliance has been established with the Maryland Women's Bar Association on issues of common concern.

As a result of the earlier caucus efforts to eradicate the systemic discrimination against women in Maryland courts, and the overwhelming predominance of male judges, the Women Legislators has made the appointment of women to the bench a priority issue. Working with women lawyers throughout the state, the Caucus identifies and endorses women for judgeships and lobbies on their behalf. While the recent history of judicial appointments in Maryland indicates that women have far to go to achieve parity, increasing numbers of candidates endorsed by the Women Legislators have been appointed to the bench. This suggests that the Caucus has an important role to play in fulfilling its non-legislative mandate of increasing the participation of Maryland women in elected and appointed offices.

It is significant that the Women Legislators has become a focal point for Maryland women to raise the awareness of issues that might otherwise go unnoticed. Thirty organizations testified before the Women Legislators at its 1989 public forum. Moreover, traditionally male dominated professional groups now meet on an annual basis with the Women Legislators, attesting to the fact that the Caucus is recognized as a significant player in the legislative arena in Annapolis.

Organizational Structure


Reflecting the trend toward more professionalism in state legislatures, the Women Legislators has gone from no staff in its first years, to reliance on student interns, and finally, to a paid executive director supported by two legislative interns during the General Assembly's regular sessions.

The executive director works full-time during the 90-day legislative session and part-time during the interim period. She is responsible for the Women Legislators' administrative and programmatic functions, including staff supervision, legislative reporting, budget preparation and fund raising events, meeting planning, media and public relations, and other Caucus-related projects.

Each of the two legislative interns, assigned from the University of Maryland's Center for Political Leadership and Participation, is awarded a $500 stipend from the Women Legislators. Under the supervision of the executive director, the interns track the progress of bills during the course of the session; prepare and disseminate the Legislative Report, the weekly update on the status of bills falling under the Women Legislators' established priorities; and provide research support to the members on issues as required.

Accompanying the Caucus' gains in staff support and technical assistance is the improvement in the working environment as a result of the acquisition of office space and equipment provided by the state. This ongoing assistance to the Women Legislators demonstrates the fact that the organization is now viewed as a legitimate and significant player in the Maryland legislature.


As the Women Caucus has grown in size and status, so has its workload -- more constituents to serve, legislation to move, and coalitions to build. The cost of running the operation has increased as well. The annual contributions of $100 per member initially relied on to cover expenses, now represent less than thirteen percent of the fiscal year 1991 budget of $30,000. Increasingly, the Caucus has looked to a variety of funding mechanisms to defray the costs of its expanding organization. From the traditional fund raising events to the creative use of in-kind contributions and interest investments, the Caucus has developed a financial strategy that has made the organization fiscally strong.

In addition to the annual fund raiser and the membership contributions, the Women Legislators has setup a high yield savings account in a women-owned bank. In 1990, the University of Maryland's Center for Political Leadership and Participation received several computers from Apple Computers, and has loaned the Caucus a Macintosh SE computer, Apple Link, and a laser printer.

The Legislative Internship Program

Among the reasons given for the Women Legislators' continuing organizational strength, particularly with regard to legislative impact, is the involvement of full-time student fellows who provide the necessary research and programmatic support. As noted earlier, the Women Legislators initiated a pilot internship program in 1977, the first of its kind to enable college students interested in women's issues to work directly with a women's legislative caucus. Undertaken at a critical juncture in the Women Legislators' history, the pilot program expanded the group's resources, enabling it to meet the demands of an increasing workload.

Since that time, the internship program has taken on a new significance not only as a valuable resource for women legislators, but also as a vehicle by which young women can learn about the political process while exploring and charting their own paths toward careers in public service.

The Women Legislators as Mentors

The current internship program is an outgrowth of a 1986 collaborative effort between the Women Legislators and the University of Maryland's Project for Women and Politics (MPWP), the first initiative of the Center for Political Leadership and Participation. Recognizing that an apprenticeship with one-on-one mentoring provides one of the most influential learning experiences for a young woman interested in a political career, the Women Legislators committed itself to developing a new generation of women political leaders through its co-sponsorship of the MPWP.

The past success of the internship program gave impetus to a statewide effort in 1990, in which the Women Legislators was instrumental, to endow an internship program on behalf of the late Rosalie Reilly, an activist in Maryland politics who was a role model for young women entering politics, The establishment of the Rosalie Reilly Fellowships marks the first time that the University of Maryland is granting on a regular basis four $1,000 stipends to young women and minorities who demonstrate a strong commitment to community, as well as a desire to learn more about the political process.

The internship program is specifically designed to identify students interested in careers in public service, provide them with a one-on-one mentorship experience with key elected or appointed officials, and increase their theoretical and real life knowledge of the political setting, the formation of policy, and the contemporary issues facing public officials and citizens alike.

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