November 18, 2004

Local Women in Politics Discuss Changes, Issues

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A panel of women involved in local politics spoke yesterday afternoon about a range of issues facing women in politics, including sexual harassment, child rearing and campaign finance reform. The talk, sponsored by Democracy Matters and Students Acting for Gender Equality (SAGE), featured Ithaca Police Chief Lauren Signer; Jean McPheeters, president of the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce; Leslyn McBean-Clairbone, a representative in the Tompkins County Legislature; and Prof. Joan Mandle, sociology and anthropology, Colgate Univeristy, executive director of Democracy Matters.

Ithaca Mayor Carolyn K. Peterson was also scheduled to attend the event but was to forced to withdraw due to an unexpected meeting, said organizers of the event.

“One of the things that women bring to politics is a more humanistic, more broad approach,” McPheeters said. “I’ve been everything in politics except an elected official … [but] the way I’ve approached things has always been as a woman,” she added.

Signer agreed that women bring a different perspective to police work. “It’s a lot easier to talk someone into handcuffs than to wrestle them,” she said. Signer also explained how she joined the police force almost twenty years ago when she took the entrance exam on a whim because her boyfriend at the time, who was himself taking the exam, suggested she give it a try. After passing the exam and becoming a police officer, Signer faced difficulties.

“A lot of things happened to show me that as a woman I wasn’t welcome on the police force,” she recalled, alluding to sexual harassment.

According to Signer, women make up only eight percent of law enforcement officers. “25 years ago, there never would have been a woman sitting here as a chief of police,” Mandle said.

In her opening remarks, Mandle discussed the progress that women had made in gaining greater influence in politics. She noted that as a result of the recent elections, there were now 65 women in the U.S. House of Representatives, more than there ever has been in history. She told the audience that they can expect to see a woman as president or vice president within their lifetime.

“We can expect to see women getting elected in larger numbers, larger percentages” in years to come, Mandle said. However, she reminded the audience that, “prejudice still exists against women in politics, and not just from men, but from women as well.”

Mandle also argued that public financing of political campaigns would help women who wanted to enter politics. “A major issue for women in politics is money. The people that fund election campaigns tend to be male. Women are less likely to be contributors,” she said.

Erica Kagan ’05, president of the Student Assembly, who moderated the event, asked the panelists how they got involved in politics.

“I felt that there was a large marginalized section of the community that wasn’t being represented, so I got involved,” McBean-Clairbone said.

McBean-Clairbone and Signer both spoke of the difficulty of balancing family time with their professional responsibilities.

“I’m a mother first, but I’m a public servant and I take that to heart,” Signer said. Mandle agreed, arguing, “Women still have most of the burden of raising children.”

She urged women to make “upfront demands” of their husbands about sharing the effort of raising children.

McBean-Clairbone discussed how her job has sometimes interfered with her private life. She once spent two hours on the phone with someone who called her house at 11 p.m. She also recalled a comic incident that occurred when a constituent interrupted a romantic dinner with her husband and insisted on talking to her about the Off Track Betting ballot initiative.

“My husband was kicking me under the table trying to get me to tell them to leave,” she recalled.

Archived article by Elijah Reichlin-Melnick
Sun Staff Writer