As I write this, votes are still being counted throughout the country in the 2020 election. While we may not know the official outcome of the 2020 Presidential Election for days or maybe weeks…one thing is certain: the voters of Rhode Island have spoken and they want a change. The Speaker of the House was defeated by a Republican challenger, which has left a power vacuum in the General Assembly.
Rhode Islanders deserve a state legislature that operates as a true democracy – and reflects the people it serves. Take a look at the leadership in the General Assembly. Notice something? All of them identify as male. And mostly white males. Which should shock you, because the majority of the RI population is female and 17% of our state are black, indigenous, Latinx and communities of color.
We have elected so many extraordinary and diverse women that the State Senate now has 50% gender parity while the House has 43% women identified representation. But we know the Constitution and legislative rules give tremendous power and discretion to the Speaker of the House, President of the Senate, and the Majority leaders - all of whom are white males. And all of whom are power guarding. The current coverage of the leadership races by a nearly all-white, male press corps furthers the narrative: these white, males have waited their turn and have campaign coffers to rule the day. That is textbook misogyny.
For too long after-hours closed-door meetings, lounge fundraisers, strong-arming, and cronyism have been the way our State House has been run. With the new slate of elected members of the General Assembly, including a significant number of new progressive female Representatives and Senators, now is the time for a change in leadership. Rhode Island has never had a female Speaker of the House and has only had one female Senate President.
So what difference does it make actually? Why is it important to have women, and especially women of color, in leadership positions in politics? Well, women govern differently than men in some important ways. On average, women work harder to represent their constituents with more multi-layered perspectives and with more empathy. For example, women in Congress sponsor and co-sponsor more bills than men do and bring nine percent more federal program dollars to their districts. Women political leaders also tend to prioritize issues that benefit the most vulnerable, such as education, health, and economic opportunities. These are critical priorities as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect Rhode Island families.
Throughout the pandemic, women leaders, and particularly women of color, have focused on the needs of vulnerable communities including policies to tackle food insecurity, homelessness, and childcare. Compared to their male counterparts, female politicians are also more collaborative and bipartisan and they substantively advance women’s rights in areas such as pay equity, violence against women, health care, and family policies.
The time for women to lead is NOW. How can you help? Support women and people of color in leadership positions. Most importantly, call and email your State Representatives and say you support a female Speaker of the House. Next, call and email your State Senator and say you support a female Senate President.
It is time our political leaders reflect the people they are meant to serve. As Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “If you're going to change things, you have to be with the people who hold the levers.”