By Kathy Postel Kretman and Gregory G. Lebel
January 1, 1991
As the women legislators look toward the twenty-first century, they see their role in the political and legislative life of Maryland changed remarkably since the beginning of the twentieth century and even since the founding of the Caucus less than twenty years ago. Women have gradually increased their numbers and their influence in the legislative process, in higher education and administration, and in the judicial branch. Women are, in short, increasingly seen as serious players in the state's public policy arena.
While it is generally accepted that much remains to be done -- for example, a woman has yet to seek the Speakership or Senate Presidency -- their accomplishments are not inconsequential. In fact, the mere continued existence of the Caucus as a vibrant, active entity within the General Assembly is an achievement. During the Women Legislators' tenure, many similar attempts to form and sustain other caucuses have failed.
The Caucus has done more than survive. Where the early Caucus members had to rely on the help of local women attorneys simply to draft legislation, contemporary members have reversed those roles, encouraging, supporting and opening doors for women who seek positions in the judiciary and in statewide elective and appointive office. The Caucus has shepherded through the law-making process many advances in child care, financial equity, property rights, spousal abuse and rape laws.
The Women Legislators has established excellent working relations with Maryland's recent governors, winning support for their priority issues and for placement of women in state government positions. In fact, the administration of Governor William Donald Schaefer has been commended by the National Political Caucus for the singularly large number of women in key executive branch positions. The legislature, too, has been cited by the Center for the American Woman and Politics for having one of the highest percentages of women in leadership positions
These accolades fail to recognize that women's gains have been subject to definite limits. The lack of women candidates for the top leadership positions supports the speculation that "glass ceiling" is still very much in place in Maryland politics. Women, according to the theory, are eligible to move only so high in the power structure before they hit that ceiling that prevents them from moving any higher. This is exacerbated by the fact that fewer routes to real political power are open to women than to men. This narrower route to power means that women must choose from among fewer options than are available to their male contemporaries. The result is that women have a more difficult time allocating among themselves the positions open to them.
The Women Legislators of Maryland continues to flourish despite institutional barriers. More women legislators are running for office, seeking positions in other areas of state and county government, and being appointed to judgeships. The Caucus continues to offer women legislators a nurturing environment in which to learn the skills necessary to be an effective legislator, and the technical means to accomplish both individual and group goals and initiatives. And its high visibility in the state provides the same support, encouragement and assistance to women seeking prominent roles in public service throughout the state and local government structure. The Caucus is a financially secure, sophisticated organization taken seriously and often sought out for its support by members of the legislature.
But these changes have not come without costs. Most obvious is that growth brings diversity to any group. The original women in the General Assembly were mostly from one party, lived in one part of the state, and had similar backgrounds in community service. Now the women legislators represent both political parties, all corners of the state, and all walks of life. Along with this eclecticism come differences in personal and political agendas and philosophies. The most notable example of this continues to be the abortion issue. More than any other single question, abortion legislation has the potential to drive a wedge between women with different philosophies and constituencies. In 1990 the Women Legislators faced once again the difficult issue of how to address the abortion issue as a collective body while respecting the diverse positions of its individual members.
Whatever the results of divisive issues, President Mary Boergers notes that in order to continue to play a central role in the legislative process, the Caucus must have clear organizational goals. This is, she notes, even more important as the organization grows. Increased size and diversity puts strains on the structure and lessens the strong personal commitment so necessary when a group is small, new, and facing adversity.
The future of the Women Legislators is often a subject of debate and speculation among its members. United States Representative Connie Morella, an alumna of the Caucus, notes that it will be a long time before the Caucus will outlive its usefulness, because women as a whole are a long way from equity. President Boergers agrees, but with one caveat. The Caucus, she feels, must stay on the cutting edge of the issue. If it doesn't, it loses much of its claim to legitimacy.
The Women Legislators of Maryland has changed the lives of its founders and improved the political prospects of its newer members. The Caucus has had a significant impact on the environment in which legislative, gubernatorial, and judicial decisions are made, and continues to promote the concerns, needs, and ambitions of women at all levels of life in the state. Possibly the most important aspect of the growth of the organization is reflected in the realization that much remains undone and that dangers lie ahead. With this unobstructed view of the future, the Women Legislators of Maryland can continue to grow, to change, and to bring that growth and change to bear on state government and in the lives of the citizens they seek to serve.
© Copyright March 07, 1997Maryland State Archives