The ongoing conversation about women in traditionally male-dominated professions was re-ignited at the college this past Wednesday, Oct. 9, with the opening of the “Women and Representation” lecture series.
Ruth Hardy, a Democratic state senator representing Addison County and a visiting professor at Middlebury this fall, kicked off the series with her talk, “Why Electing More Women Matters.”
Drawing on her experience as a state senator and her former role as the executive director of Emerge Vermont, Hardy focused her talk on worldwide statistics surrounding women in elected positions, the importance of electing women to office and potential barriers that deter women from running in elections.
“I started with a little story about when I first gave a talk like this just after the 2016 Democratic National Convention,” Hardy told The Campus. “I had gone [to the convention] and was really excited — I thought we were turning a corner in the whole ‘women in politics’ story and that we were about to elect our first woman president — and then, of course, what came after.”
The United States is ranked 76th in the world in terms of women in national legislatures; it falls far behind Rwanda, Cuba and Bolivia, which are the top three highest-ranked nations for female representation.
Within the U.S., Vermont does poorly in comparison with other states.
“It’s the only state that hasn’t sent a woman to Congress,” Hardy said. “You wouldn’t think so, but we haven’t.”
Hardy laid out the factors that prevent women from getting into politics, from structural barriers to personal ones. For example, women feel they need to be overly qualified to run for office, she said.
As Hardy explained in her presentation, many women face sexism and discrimination, bias in the media, voter bias and sexual harassment — obstacles that female candidates, especially women of color, must overcome but that men rarely encounter.
The lecture series, co-sponsored by Middlebury’s Political Science Department and the Feminist Resource Center at the Chellis House, aims to change the discourse surrounding the portrayal and representation of women, especially in elected positions.
Erik Bleich, chair of the Political Science Department, explained that his department decided to invite speakers around a particular theme decided upon last year. This year’s theme celebrates the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage.
“I asked [Hardy] to present because she is a dynamic local woman who has long been active in politics,” Bleich said. “Her talk was very well-received.”
The lecture series is of particular relevance because, as Bleich described, “Diversity is more than just an object of study. Institutions at every level function best when they’re at their most diverse, when everyone feels that they are represented and can represent themselves.”
According to Bleich, the “Women and Representation” series provides students with an “opportunity to think about things going on today — the rise of female candidates running for President of the United States, the surge of women running for office in the U.S., the issue of women’s rights around the world.”
“It’s becoming more and more important for political scientists to focus on gender,” he said.
In addition to Hardy, this year’s line-up of featured speakers will include Sabrina Karim, assistant professor of government at Cornell University, and Kimberly Morgan, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.
For this first lecture, Hardy did more than highlight the gender inequalities within the U.S. political system: she spoke on the importance of electing women and how electing more women can become a reality.
“Women often make better leaders and better elected officials than men,” Hardy said. “They sponsor more legislation, bring more money to districts, improve the economy in their districts and have better health outcomes for counties and districts represented by women. Women are more collaborative and less partisan.”
Anna Durning ’19.5, who attended the talk, got to know Hardy when she volunteered for her state senate campaign last fall, and was excited to hear of her on-campus lecture.
“In her talk, Ruth did a really good job of bringing together scholarship on women and elections, and her own story of running for office, [for the] school board and then state senate,” Durning wrote in an email to The Campus. “She reminded us that here in Vermont, ‘We love to think we’re better than New Hampshire, but when it comes to women in office we’re not.’”
Durning also mentioned that during the lecture, a frustrating example of the treatment women sometimes face when they hold public roles came up. Durning explained that an older man answered a phone call and proceeded to talk loudly on the phone while Hardy was speaking about barriers that prevent women from running for office.
“In a somewhat small space such as the RAJ conference room, he was essentially speaking over Sen. Hardy, which I felt was incredibly rude and an absurdly well-timed example of how people do not value women’s expertise and experience,” Durning said. The man was eventually asked to leave.
Hardy’s talk had a lot of overlap with the class she is currently teaching this semester, focusing on issues such as the current status of women in politics and different identities of women in political positions — such as women of color, LGBTQIA+ women and Republican women.
Through both her lecture and her class, Hardy hopes to instill a sense of awareness in Middlebury students about Vermont politics and women in office.
Editor’s note: Ruth Hardy is the spouse of Prof. Jason Mittell, The Campus’ academic advisor. Any questions may be directed to [email protected]