Yesterday was an historic day in the almost 400-year history of the Virginia House. Twenty-eight women took the oath of office.
We’ve never had more than nineteen women at any one time – followed by falling back to just having thirteen or fourteen. The Virginia Senate broke through the 20% ceiling more than a decade ago. Well, it may have taken the House longer, but yesterday we didn’t just crack the ceiling, we shattered it!
A little history: In 1924, the first two women were elected to the House. By 1933, a total of six had served. But that marked the end of women in the House for the next two decades. The next woman didn’t take her seat until 1954. She was joined four years later by two more women and another in 1960, for a total of four.
I want to give these four women (three Democrats and one Republican) special recognition because they are truly women of courage. No women at all for 20 years and then these four isolated human beings took their seats. They were not only isolated as women … but they came to this body with the conviction that massive resistance must end … they stood against a power structure that would close public schools rather than open them to blacks.
One of these women was my mentor, Dorothy McDiarmid, who ultimately rose to be Chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee as well as the first woman to serve on Rules. She wanted me to run, and a key part of her approach was getting me down here as her aide so I would have a real view of how I would balance family with the world of the General Assembly. This exposure included the curmudgeon role her husband played in supporting her, a role my husband fully embraced as we worked our way through how both he and I could thrive within the changing roles for women.
When I took my seat in 1982, there had been only twenty-one women who’d ever sat in this Chamber. The great thing, though, was that the women’s rights movement had spurred a record election of four women that year. Now there were a total of eight women in the House and they’d run out of traditional women’s committees to put us on. I’m sure it was with Dorothy’s help that I got my first choice: it was not a “women’s” committee but the Finance Committee, to carry on the tax research I’d done to get school funding which had led to a job with the Fairfax Chamber to expand the business tax base. Traditional roles for women had begun to crack … ever so slightly. And I would be less than honest if I didn’t note that most of us felt the pressure to be twice as good to keep any opportunity open. In the words of the time, Fred Astaire got the starring role while Ginger Rogers did it in high heels and backwards!
The next big crack came with a 1983 court ruling that forced new House districts to be drawn under the Federal Voting Rights Act. Professor Yvonne Miller was the first black woman seated in the House, followed the next Session by Delegates Christian and Cunningham. The traditional look of the House had begun to change.
Today, the leadership of all women of color is now not just a given in the communities of their heritage, it is a flourishing – particularly tough – fiber in the fabric of this body.
I say that because while I only carry the label “woman,” the challenges of that label give me some appreciation for what makes the core of any woman particularly tough when she also carries the label of a stereotyped minority. To be a survivor, they’ve had to reach deep to know who they truly are no matter what anyone says. These women are strong, but they’re also often acutely aware of the plight of others. Good qualities in a public servant.
The 2018 class of twelve women, added to the sixteen of us who welcome them, includes attorneys, administrators, healthcare professionals, educators, social workers, small business women, realtors, former local elected officials, consultants, congressional staff, a journalist, and, in a class by herself, a cyber security specialist. This range of professional experience is the real world of women.
When I came in, I was the first woman to have kids in school … high school! The class of 2018 multi-tasks like you wouldn’t believe. I stand in awe as their nurturing hearts seem to focus their capable minds for a full package of doing what needs to be done. These women are living proof: Traditional roles are part of the package … they are not the whole package.
I repeat, this is today’s real world for women. Their competence and life experience will enrich our full consideration of public policy … just as those who came before opened their colleagues’ awareness … and opened doors! (Like the door to the lounge on the House floor where legislative relations are shaped but which was once firmly closed to women.) Of course, I could go on, like not realizing I should have asked permission to wear pants, or missing votes because the ladies room was way down the hall at the rotunda. The importance of any of such quaint history is that the House got through it.
As of yesterday, I became the longest serving woman in the House, going beyond Delegate McDiarmid’s twenty-six years. So, having lived it, I’m here to tell you a little bit of change here and there to embrace diversity has served the body well. What is even more important, Virginia has been better served … and will be better served. On behalf of all the women who’ve come before, welcome to the women of 2018. Here’s to the future.