Four men in Annapolis have decided to do women’s work. Or at least support it.
“When you don’t know that something hasn’t been done before, you don’t know that it’s a big deal when you do it,” said Maryland state Delegate Will Smith, D-Montgomery.
When the list of caucuses was handed out at the start of this year’s legislative session, Smith said, it was a logical thing for him to join the women’s caucus. He said he wanted to show support for the group’s goals and the female members of the General Assembly.
Three other freshman lawmakers — Delegate Erek Barron, D-Prince George’s, Delegate Andrew Platt, D-Montgomery, and Delegate Jimmy Tarlau, D-Prince George’s — felt similarly compelled to join, prompted by members of the caucus or strong opinions about a key women’s issue.
Now, for the first time in its 43-year history, the Women Legislators of Maryland Caucus has male legislators seated around the table.
None of the delegates knew that the women’s caucus had never had a male member, nor did they discuss the decision to join with each other.
When the delegates were asked if they knew they were making history, they met the question with laughs. No, they said. Joining just made sense.
“Half the people that vote are women. Of course the issues of women are important, and they are for everyone,” said Tarlau. “We’re all eager to learn, and quickly. We get flooded with lots of bills and we need to make sure that women’s issues do not get lost.”
In fact, studies have shown that about 60 percent of the Democrat vote comes from women, said Delegate Ariana Kelly, D-Montgomery. While it is nice to have men join the caucus, she said, it is really an acknowledgement of the importance of the female vote for Democrats.
“An important part of the mission of the caucus is to address the issues in a bipartisan way, and it is notable that Republican men have not joined,” she said. “But we welcome them.”
Delegate Teresa Reilly, a Republican from Harford County, said that she was not surprised to see the men at the table and didn’t think twice about the fact that they’re all Democrats.
A freshman herself, Reilly said that many new members are curious about women’s issues and want to address them without a political or partisan agenda.
The caucus has named Kelly’s Maryland Home Birth Safety Act, which would require midwives in the state to be licensed, one of its top priorities.
Also on the list of priorities are bills addressing human trafficking, domestic violence and health issues that affect women, including the study of uterine fibroids.
For Barron, many of these issues hit close to home. Women in his family have been victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, he said, and he’s been active in and passionate about issues since his time in law school and before.
“These men know that being supportive of wives and daughters and women in general makes the world a better place,” said caucus president Delegate Tawanna Gaines, D-Prince George’s.
Younger people don’t always understand what a women’s issue is or its importance, Gaines said, but good progress has been made.
When the women’s caucus was formed in 1972, there were no women’s bathrooms in the chamber. Gaines said she can remember stories she was told by her friend, the late Delegate Pauline Menes, in which the men of the General Assembly would put up bills that were viewed unfavorably by women while she was out using the restroom.
Menes, now a member of the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, accepted an appointment as Chairman of the Women’s Restroom Committee by Speaker of the House Thomas Hunter Lowe in an inappropriate gesture to recognize her outspoken advocacy for women’s rights, according to the women’s caucus website.
In 1994, the women of Maryland’s General Assembly stood and walked off the floor when an amendment was presented that would have gutted the intention of an historic bill that would protect against domestic violence, according to Marsha Wise, the caucus’ executive director.
Maryland’s women’s caucus was the first in the nation, and they have a poster that they display at each meeting to remind them of that fact.
Women’s issues are changing and the caucus is changing with it, Wise said.
But there is still a long way to go, said Kelly.
The announcement of U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski’s retirement has made it clear that there is not a strong pipeline of Maryland women to take her spot or to fill in the subsequent open roles, she said.
“Some of the issues we’re still struggling with, like harassment, are worse now than they used to be. It’s discouraging to me,” she said.
The role of the caucus is to inform. Male members are considered associate members. They do not have voting rights, but are allowed to testify about bills on behalf of the women’s caucus in front of committees and the General Assembly.
“Every public policy has an impact on women that may not be discussed if we don’t bring it up,” said Platt. “What we can best do is listen.”