The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, January 20, 2021 1:00 am


Shattered ceiling

Harris' ascendance irreversible step forward

A century after the 19th Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote, the country today will see a woman for the first time ascend to the top tier of American government.

Former California Sen. Kamala D. Harris will be inaugurated the 49th U.S. vice president, a   and one that ensures a positive step forward in a country that in recent years has been backsliding in diversity in government policy.

A Trump administration directive in September forbade federal agencies and contractors from providing workers with training on race and sex discrimination. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday flouted our country's traditional motto “E Pluribus Unum” – out of many, one – when he tweeted that “isms” such as multiculturalism are “not who America is.”

“They distort our glorious founding and what this country is all about,” the outgoing secretary wrote. “Our enemies stoke these divisions because they know they make us weaker.”

Opportunity should be what our country is all about, and Harris' rise to the No. 2 spot in the executive branch is an example of that. It's an example that's recognized in Fort Wayne and can be used to build upon efforts to guarantee more women's voices are heard in local government.

Rachel Tobin-Smith said the new vice president's work represents an opportunity for women to seek local public office and become part of decision-making bodies whose policies directly affect our lives. After all, Harris didn't begin her public life running for vice president.

“Women start by running in their own communities,” Tobin-Smith, co-founder of Advancing Voices of Women, said in an interview Tuesday.

A statement from AVOW says having a woman in the nation's second-highest office “helps normalize the idea that women can and should be there.”

“Remember how historic it was when Sandra Day O'Connor became the first female U.S. Supreme Court justice?” the statement says. “Then, we became accustomed to women being on the court. The first is the hardest. This is the start we need.

“Many women run for office once, fail and then do not run again. Hopefully, seeing Kamala Harris' success will spur them on.”

AVOW, a group founded in 2017 to inject female views into community conversations, is doing its part.

It has trained more than 30 women – Republicans and Democrats – to run for office since 2018.

“At least 10 have run for public office so far, with many planning runs for office in the future,” Tobin-Smith said in an email.

Efforts since August 2020 to get more women on mostly-male local government boards and commissions have seen four women interviewed for county positions. Profiles of 10 women gathered by AVOW have been sent to the city for consideration.

John Perlich, a spokesman for Mayor Tom Henry, said five women applied to city boards in 2019 and 17 applied last year.

Five were named to panels, he said, and women lead city departments such as Intergovernmental Affairs, Community Development and the city attorney's office.

Women also are members of city boards overseeing parks, zoning, human relations and public art. They are missing, however, on some key panels, including the Fort Wayne Redevelopment Commission and Economic Development Commission.

“Gender diversity in local government is important and we need to continue to be proactive in order to make that more of a reality,” Perlich said in an email. “We know there's more work to be done.”

Women have made significant gains in representation in state government since Julia Nelson, a Muncie Republican, was elected Indiana's first female lawmaker in 1920 – the same year the 19th Amendment was ratified.

Capitol & Washington, a political data website run by Trevor Foughty, a Wells County native, reports 38 of the state's 150 legislators now are women. That's up from 33 in 2020.

“It's a wonderful day for women,” Tobin-Smith said, referring to the inauguration of Harris. “It's a glass ceiling that's been broken. It's a huge step forward.”

Now those important steps need to continue.

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