About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.
There is now a Berkshire County chapter of the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus (MWPCA). Some see its formation as a direct result of the 2016 presidential election.
“It was the night of the election. I was at a party,” Amy Diamond, president of the Berkshire WPC explained, “and when it was clear what the result would be, I knew I had to do something.”
Being motivated by a single issue is not unusual. In the 1800s, women viewed alcohol as ruining the sanctity and sanity of their homes. They organized the Temperance Movement and marched in favor of abstinence. In the mid-19th century, before women could vote, they fought for abolition. Women organized and marched for the right to vote, earning it in 1919. In the early 20th century, they gathered in the streets again to demand education about and legal access to contraception. In 1980, MADD was founded and mothers fought to get drunk drivers off the streets. Each time, having accomplished their goal – and the women invariably did accomplish their goal – they went home. Women may have weakened their political voice by not sustaining it. So, while some see organization of the Berkshire chapter as an extension of the post-inaugural women’s march, others view it as a step in a continuing movement.
Barbara Sussman Goldberg was at the same party as Diamond. Goldberg was a longtime member of the National Women’s Political Caucus, an organization that held its first meeting more than 45 years ago in 1971. Goldberg suggested they form the Berkshire County chapter.
The National WPC is a nonpartisan grassroots organization dedicated to increasing women’s participation in the political process. Massachusetts WPC recruits, trains and supports women candidates for appointed and elected political offices.
“Their goal is simple: encourage women to run for political office, then prepare and support them,” Goldberg said. “Local chapters like Berkshire WPC may have their own agendas and dues structures, but the ultimate objective is the same: involve women in politics.”
Andrea Harrington joined Goldberg and Diamond and, together, the three founded the Berkshire chapter. All three founders believed that, if more women became involved in politics, meaningful change would occur. All three wanted to make a difference and they were willing to change their own lives to do it.
“Last year I was working in southeast Asia, a banker in gas and oil.” Diamond said, “I was raising money to discover oil and gas reserves, solidifying the initial stage of development of gas, oil and petrochemicals, and moving on.”
How would you characterize being the president of a branch of MWPC?
“As a real pivot,” Diamond answered.
Goldberg was a manager at AT&T. When she retired, she, too, “pivoted.” She founded the Somerset County(New Jersey) Cultural Diversity Coalition and she was on the state caucus. Her proudest moment was when she received a letter thanking her and sharing that, because of her involvement with caucus, the letter writer was the first female and the first Latina chair of her county political party. Goldberg calls it her “reward letter.” It fired her up, and she brought the same fervor to Berkshire County when she relocated. She continues as treasurer of Berkshire WPC.
“I believe, when women get involved,” Goldberg said, “the dialogue changes.” And she added, “We need change.”
When asked in what way the conversation would change if more women were in politics, Goldberg hesitated, “Well, male and female cultural norms are not as defined as they were 100 years ago, still men and women have different perspectives. For example, some women perceive politics as dirty. They have to persist, gather power and change the landscape.”
Nationally only 8 percent of governors, 5 percent of CEOs and 20 percent of corporate board members are women, yet the three women agreed the place to start was local politics.
Diamond explained: “We want to involve women on the local level — get women – young women — into the political pipeline so they can be involved over time and make it a career. That’s how we effect change.”
Interestingly, Diamond believed that, no matter who won the 2016 presidential election, it would be bad for women.
“If Hillary won, I anticipated pushback. If women are in focus, someone will take aim. You cannot be in business without knowing there are preconceived notions, so, either way, heightened focus means some attack. As a woman, I needed to act.”
As at many other times in history, women feel the need to act, but act how? At the initial meetings, the conversations were wide-ranging, from sharing practical knowledge about running for office to asking philosophical questions about cultural change. Conversation moved from “How do I build a base?” to “What does the persuasiveness of the lower register voice and the necessity for a thick skin mean for women? Will more women in leadership roles provide role models and allow young girls to envision themselves in those roles? Who is the best role model? Is it Margaret Thatcher the Iron lady demanding ‘Britain Awake’ and emulating the toughest and most militant defender?”
That prompts the underlying question: ought women to emulate men or to attempt a true paradigmatic shift? That is, to win, does she get tough or change the cultural perceptions and evaluations of male and female characteristics? For example, how is strength defined? Are we conflating female characteristics and weakness? How does she change the definition of strength and garner respect for “female” characteristics?
“Oh, well,” Amy suggested, “Just get out there and act confident.”
Goldberg concurred, “Get out there.”
“NWPC was founded on July 10, 1971, to increase the number of women in all aspects of political life – as elected and appointed officials, as judges in state and federal courts, and as delegates to national conventions. On that date, 320 women from all over the United States met in Washington, D.C., to found the NWPC. The founders included Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Betty Friedan, Mildred McWilliams Jeffrey, and Gloria Steinem among others.”
They may or may not have known it, but they were coming together in Washington, D.C., just as another group of women had 50 years earlier. In 1920, after winning the right to vote, an equal number of women met to celebrate. They named the house in which they gathered Belmont House to honor Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont and her participation in the fight to earn the vote. They asked her to speak.
Belmont said there was no time to celebrate, “You earned the right to vote, now run for office.”
That day they formed the National Women’s Party.