ANNAPOLIS – The women of Maryland’s General Assembly have come a long way in a quarter century. Not only did they lack power in 1972, they did not even have a private Statehouse restroom like their male colleagues.
When Del. Pauline H. Menes spoke with then-House Speaker Thomas Hunter Lowe about installing one, he retaliated for her earlier criticisms of the small number of women legislators in leadership roles.
He made her the first and only “Chairman of the Ladies’ Restroom Committee.” Menes tried to use her title as a ticket to leadership meetings, but several told her she could not attend because it would make the men uncomfortable.
The women organized a caucus shortly afterward to push for recognition. The group still lobbies for women today as it celebrates its 25th anniversary.
“It was really the opening gun for the women’s movement in Maryland,” reflected Menes, D-Prince George’s, who became the group’s first elected president.
The Women Legislators of Maryland originally focused almost exclusively on women’s and children’s issues. That hasn’t changed. In the 1997 General Assembly session, their priorities include family law, women’s and children’s health and gender bias.
Those policy areas provide “common ground” among 56 women of diverse party, race and geographic backgrounds, said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, D-Howard, the group’s legislative chairwoman. “And quite frankly, there’s a real need for that,” Bobo added.
The caucus took positions this year on 60 bills, virtually all relating to women and children.
Caucus President Nancy K. Kopp, D-Montgomery, expects a package of five domestic violence bills to become agenda’s hallmark. One measure would allow immediate divorce in domestic violence cases; another extends the length of restraining orders.
Caucus members persuaded House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, to become the primary sponsor of the House package.
Taylor said the bills originated from Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s Domestic Violence Council, which included caucus participation.
“They brought the package to me and asked me to make it a part of my leadership package,” Taylor said. “And I did.”
Taylor praised the caucus’s accomplishments. “The women legislators are very effective in dealing with so many of the issues that affect all of us,” he said.
The caucus has also taken on drug abuse, supporting state bonds for the Sanctuary, a retired military hospital ship converted into a residential treatment center in Baltimore. Sanctuary staff members teach job skills to several hundred participants, in addition to treating drug habits.
Kopp said drug abuse and domestic violence rank high on the agenda because they “affect the children as well as the mothers.”
But she pointed out that the caucus’s role is not restricted to legislation.
For instance, the group supports moving women into nontraditional roles by pushing for more female educators on university faculty for subjects such as biotechnology and engineering.
The caucus holds meetings at least once a year to teach the education community the advantages of bringing women to these fields. “It’s mostly jawboning, but it’s been effective,” Kopp said.
Caucus members believe their agenda is a flag for other lawmakers.
“I do believe that nothing goes unnoticed,” Menes said. “The Women’s Caucus’s support gives others cause to evaluate.”
Bobo explained: “The amount of paper that goes across legislators’ desks — it takes a lot of work to sort out what’s really a priority.”
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s, said caucus members are dedicated and do their homework. “They’ve made my job easier,” he said.
Miller said he looks more closely at bills with the caucus’s support, and he believes committee chairmen do the same.
Del. Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, who chairs the House Economic Matters Committee, said the nine caucus members on his committee have proven helpful.
Busch said his committee and the caucus have formed a working relationship through those women. The women gather background on bills from caucus meetings and present it to the committee members prior to voting.
At the same time, he adds, “their knowledge and background from the committee determines the direction of the caucus.”
Lobbyists, who would not waste time with powerless organizations, also find the caucus an effective ally on women’s and children’s issues.
“When you have 56 women of great diversity all coming together on a specific issue, I would say they could have a substantial impact,” said Lynda Meade of Catholic Charities, who often works with the caucus.
Cynthia Golomb of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence said that when a significant domestic violence bill was “gutted” on the floor in 1994, the caucus organized and pushed through amendments salvaging the measure. “They have the ability to be a very powerful group when it’s appropriate,” she said. -30-