Columnist Mary Olberding: After marching, women must run

  • Some 1,000 people rally at Pulaski Park on Jan. 21 following the Women’s March in Northampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 4/2/2017 11:16:31 PM

There has been a noticeable upswing in political activity since November’s election, particularly for women.

The Women’s March on Washington on Jan. 21 was an overwhelming demonstration of women’s political force in today’s politics. In addition to the over 500,000 men and women who marched in DC, it was reported that over 400 similar marches took place across the U.S. in support of women’s rights, racial equality, LGBT rights, environmental justice and workers’ rights.

This was not the first time women marched to bring attention to inequality in society.

When the U.S. Constitution was written, “We the People” meant only white male landowners were endowed with the right to vote.

In 1848, women who grew dissatisfied with their traditional roles gathered in Seneca Falls with abolitionists and temperance seekers for the first Women’s Rights Convention. Laid out in their Declaration of Sentiments, they wanted property rights, access to education and pursuit of professional vocation among others. The suffrage movement was born out of necessity in order to achieve equal rights for all. The signers knew they were powerless to change the status quo without the right to vote and so the long march toward the 19th Amendment began.

International Women’s Day is celebrated annually on March 8, marking the day in 1908 when 15,000 women marched in the streets of New York City demanding workers’ rights and voting rights. Within a few years, similar protests took place around the world. This year’s celebration was dubbed “the Day without Women” and once again women and their supporters marched across the country to demonstrate their contributions to society.

It took 70 years of marching before women gained the right to vote when the 19th Amendment was signed into law in 1920. Nearly 100 years later, the marches this year demonstrate what women and their allies can do when they feel powerless and want to change the status quo. Many people are asking if these marches will make a difference. My hope is that this new wave of political activism inspires more women to run for elected office.

Women are underrepresented at all levels of government. In the last 20 years, female representation in the Massachusetts Legislature has hardly moved, varying from 19 percent to 24 percent. The U.S. Congress is about the same – overall 19 percent, with the Senate reaching its all-time high of 21 percent women in just this last election. Massachusetts elected its first female U.S. Senator only in 2012 and has yet to elect its first female governor.

I recently had the privilege of serving on WHMP’s live community forum, “A Woman’s Place is in the House … or Senate” with seven other female leaders in the Pioneer Valley. The forum grew out of my frustration with the November election.

Yes, I was disappointed with the results, but more importantly, I realized that more has to be done to increase the number of female elected officials. There are not enough of us. The forum offered an opportunity to hear from women who hold elected offices from different constituencies and to spur more women to run.

Women have a stake in governmental policy and its priorities and so should actively participate in it. Lack of adequate representation has serious consequences. During last month’s Trumpcare fiasco, a few congressmen voiced their opinion that men should not have to pay for maternity care or mammograms. Being a woman should not be a preexisting condition. Women need to share their perspective and lend diversity of voices to the debate.

Healthcare is a key example of an issue that disproportionally affects women. We are primarily responsible for making health care decisions in our families as caretakers of the nation’s children and the elderly. We require more maintenance for most of our lives. Women are the largest consumers of health care for the simple, inescapable fact that our bodies are responsible for birthing the next generation.

March was Women’s History Month, and I hope the recent flurry of civic engagement grows and helps to achieve greater parity for all of us. If the marches are going to lead to meaningful change, if women want their voices heard, the real work of governing begins when the marches end.

So ladies, today you march, tomorrow you run.

Mary Olberding, of Belchertown, in 2012 was elected register of deeds for Hampshire County. She also serves on the board of directors for Emerge Massachusetts, a program that trains Democratic women to run for office.

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