Women and town meeting

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(HOST) The New England town meeting is said to be one of the purest forms of participatory democracy, and recently, commentator Frank Bryan found further evidence to support this claim.

(BRYAN) Town Meeting in Vermont is an enduring tradition. In fact, if a Vermonter from 1830 were to attend Town Meeting in 2006, that person would find little changed in the way business is conducted.

Except for this single surprise.

Half of the citizens at this legislative proceeding might very well be women.

In this surprise is found the single best defense of modern town meeting.

For it is impossible to name another legislative system in America about which this claim can be made.

In a representative year (in this case 2003) my data show that in a sample of forty-four towns across Vermont almost half of the attendance at town meeting (forty-eight percent) was made up of women. In Belvider, Bridport, Charlotte, Grafton, Lincoln, Victory, Wells, Westford and Westminister, the majority of those legislating town business were women. The same could be said of nine of the other thirty-four towns we studied.

In Washington D.C. only fouteen percent of the members of Congress that year who fashioned the federal budget and then
set the tax rate to fund it were women. In Montpelier barely thirty percent of the people that set Vermont’s taxes and made all Vermont’s other laws were women.

This nation has agonized for over a century about how to best provide women with equal political power. We have organized
and protested and marched in the streets. We have pleaded and demanded. We have run ourselves through complex and
frustrating national laws designed to achieve political parity for women.

And for the most part, we have failed.

America, the Republic, failed to pass an amendment to the America Constitution at least proclaiming it believed in the concept, of women’s rights.

Even Vermont failed in a similar effort.

In 1986 a statewide referendum to place an ERA for women
in the Vermont Constitution was defeated.

While all this has been going on, town meeting, quietly and without fanfare – without anyone even noticing in fact – accomplished what the biggest, richest, most powerful
government on earth could not.

We need to think deeply about this fact and we need to think about it with pride.

What if, during the new business article of our town meetings this year someone were to rise and make a motion to thank ourselves for this accomplishment and everybody were to applaud? Who knows? The sound might even reach the banks of the Potomac.

This is Frank Bryan of Starksboro.

Frank Bryan is a writer and teaches political science at the University of Vermont.

Be sure to tune in tonight at seven, for comprehensive coverage of the issues being discussed at town meetings around the state on Switchboard. Host Bob Kinzel will talk with reporters from around the state about results in their towns, and as usual, we’ll take your calls.

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