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Area politics missing a woman's touch
Survey gives Warren, Washington counties poor grades for diversity

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Warren and Washington counties -- among many others -- earned an "F" on a recent report card on women's progress in New York county legislatures, conducted by the University of Rochester.

The grades, developed by the Susan B. Anthony Center for Women's Leadership, were based on a survey comparing the number of women in local elected offices (at the county level) in 2002 and 2006. Warren County has no female officials, while Washington County's leadership staff is just 17 percent female. (Saratoga County, which had 21 percent, received a C+ in the grading system.)

However, local officials pointed out that -- in this area at least -- women occupy a number of important political leadership positions not counted in the study. Among them: State Sen. Elizabeth Little, R-Queensbury; Warren County District Attorney Kate Hogan; Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, R-Willsboro; Saratoga Springs Mayor Valerie Keehn; and U.S. Rep.-elect Kirsten Gillibrand, D-Greenport.

Nora Bredes, director of the center, said the study only examined the county level of government because it would have been too time-intensive to examine all forms of local government, and because the county provides a critical pipeline to other levels.

"We are ranked 67th in the world for our women's share of representation in the national legislature," Bredes said. "We're ranked behind Afghanistan and Iraq."

Bredes said counties were also examined because they typically deal with state officials, which means they can have some impact on social service issues and law enforcement issues like domestic violence, child support enforcement and foster care.

JoAnn Trinkle, Cambridge town supervisor and chairwoman of the Washington County Board of Supervisors, laughed when she heard the results of the study.

"We're getting there," said Trinkle, "and I think in the last five or six years Washington County has gained considerably. We have a woman chairing the Board of Supervisors, and three other women on the board, and that was unheard of 10 years ago."

Sayward, who has been involved with various groups trying to increase female representation and involvement in government, said she wasn't surprised by the results of the study at all.

"We do need more women to get involved in politics," Sayward said. "I'm not saying that women make better politicians than men -- it's just that we add some diversity."

Bredes said the center's main concern is that women have not yet reached "critical mass" in local governments.

In 2002, 16.6 percent of county legislature positions were held by women in the state of New York.

That percentage has not changed noticeably in four years (it is now 17.4 percent), which Bredes said is worrying.

The "critical mass" to which she refers is the statistical notion that when a group is represented as roughly 35 percent of the population, it reaches a point where its interests are reflected in discourse.

At just over a third of a population, groups are shown to support each other's beliefs and values, and effect change.

"It doesn't matter what the group is," Bredes said. "If you have one lawyer in a group full of nursery school teachers, the lawyer's teachings and values probably will not be reflected in the conversation. Institutions have been run by men for hundreds of years, and the rules and behaviors have been ruled by a man's mindset."

Sayward agreed, saying she believes women are made differently, and that difference has meaning.

"I think we think about things differently," Sayward said. "We think about things in longer term. We think about families' issues. I think sometimes we multitask better, and I think many times women come into a situation with a more open mind."

But Trinkle said she doesn't think adding more women would influence the issues that are dealt with or raised by the board.

"That really doesn't have an influence on it," Trinkle said. "I do think that women have a different outlook on things, but that's common knowledge."

In the end, though, Bredes conceded the main point of the study was to prompt people to consider the simple fact that women make up 53 percent of the state's voting population, but only 17 percent of the seats occupied in county legislatures.

"We don't have all the answers -- we have theories," Bredes said.

"But I think it's important for people to ask, in Warren County, why no women serve in the county legislature."

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