It's a man's world at the State House

March 22, 1992|By Thomas W. Waldron and Laura Lippman | Thomas W. Waldron and Laura Lippman,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- Every woman in the State House, it seems, has a memory of a special man.

Former lobbyist Rachel Wadsworth Dale remembers "one of our beloved senators" publicly praising her bosses for hiring "a prettier class of lobbyist these days."

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman and Sen. Paula C. Hollinger will never forget some of their male colleagues calling them the worst anatomical, anti-woman epithet during the 1990 abortion filibuster. "It was so ugly," Ms. Hoffman says now. "Even to think about it gives me indigestion."

And lobbyist Carolyn T. Burridge has chalked up a list of legislators who have propositioned her.

"You just say no and go on," Ms. Burridge says.

But in the process of going on, women here are often reminded of how far they still have to go.

Last week, for example, Del. Kenneth H. Masters denounced a civil rights bill that would have put prohibitions on sexual harassment into state law.

"I ask anyone in the House to define that term [sexual harassment]," said Mr. Masters, a Baltimore County Democrat. "This is insane public policy."

The bill narrowly passed, but only after two tries on the House floor. These are the same men, Sen. Mary H. Boergers said, who identified with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas when he was accused in his confirmation hearings of sexual harassment.

"Whatever their profession, they haven't really worked with women much," said Ms. Boergers, a Montgomery County Democrat and an 11-year General Assembly veteran. "What they're comfortable with is the boy-girl stuff. Women as mothers, sisters, girlfriends."

In many respects, the State House remains a man's world. Women -- legislators and lobbyists alike -- are a growing, but still small minority.

On a good day in Annapolis, a woman is a lady, showered with courtly praise. On a bad day -- when a woman crosses a powerful man or dares to observe that gender appears to be a factor in some decision -- she's an "[expletive] woman's libber." Or worse.

They learn to ignore sexist jokes and boorish remarks. They know which male legislators not to be alone with -- whether it's the lawmaker who grabs everyone in the elevator or one who propositions lobbyists.

"We're kidding ourselves to think there are not a lot of people who are not comfortable with us being here," said Del. Anne S. Perkins, D-Baltimore, the only woman chairing a major legislative committee.

Slender gains, slow progress

Despite some gains in recent elections, women account for less than a quarter of the 188 members of the General Assembly: 35 of 141 delegates and nine of 47 senators. Maryland ranks 14th in the country in electing women legislators.

And in the leadership ranks, where most power still rests, women have made slower progress.

Of the 20 committee chairmen and their deputies in the General Assembly, only three are women. Del. Nancy K. Kopp, a Montgomery County Democrat, serves as the House speaker pro tem, a largely ceremonial position but one with access to important discussions and decisions. Another woman, Susanne Brogan, is House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr.'s chief aide, the first woman in that well-placed position.

During a recent tribute to the state's first black female senator, the late Verda F. Welcome, Sen. Clarence W. Blount summarized the choices women face, acknowledging that some problems linger.

"She used sweetness," the Baltimore Democrat said of Mrs. Welcome. "She understood men and the male ego. She plied them with everything she had. She used all her femininity to get the job done.

"It wasn't easy for women then.

"It's not necessarily easy for women now."

Nothing came easily

Two decades ago, the Maryland law books were still filled with archaic strictures on women, said Catherine I. Riley, a former Senate committee chairman who left the legislature in 1990 and is now a lobbyist.

Female lawmakers frequently led the fight for change, pushing for new laws on rape, divorce, child support, domestic violence, and funding for the Woman, Infants and Children nutritional aid program and others.

Nothing came easily. It took several years, for example, to pass a bill overturning an entrenched piece of common law: a man's right to rape his wife.

Del. Pauline H. Menes, a Prince George's Democrat who first came to the House in 1967, said her male colleagues suffered from the shortsightedness at the root of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill imbroglio. They just didn't get it.

"There was a lack of experience, a lack of information," she said of her early fights to have domestic violence recognized as a problem. "They said: 'It is not needed.' 'There is no such problem.' "

Then there's potty parity. Women lawmakers have tried for years to pass a law requiring public facilities to provide equitable restroom facilities for women. Their efforts have yielded silly newspaper stories and bad bathroom jokes, but no law.

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