Inaugural Schar School Panel Explores Women in Politics in Trump, #MeToo Era

An audience of more than 120 students, faculty and staff members, and others interested in the topic of “Can Women Save Democracy?: Women Political Leaders in the Time of Trump and #MeToo” attended the inaugural Pennino Panel on Gender and Policy at George Mason University’s Founders Hall auditorium in Arlington Wednesday night.

The panel invited to answer the question was certainly qualified: Freshman U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.); Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D), the first woman to serve as Virginia House Minority Leader in 400 years; Mason graduate (BA, Economics, ’93) and Democratic Caucus Chair of the Virginia House of Delegates Charniele Herring; Del. Ken Plum (D), who has been in the House since 1982; and Anne Holton, former Virginia Secretary of Education and now a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government (she’s also married to U.S. Senator Tim Kaine [D-Va.]). 

The 90-minute discussion was moderated by Schar School professors Bonnie Stabile and Toni-Michelle Travis, co-directors of the Gender and Policy Initiative at the Schar School and the organizers of the event.

If there was a consensus at the end of the discussion it was that women have made great strides in elective politics but there is still much to do. Wexton pointed out that the current U.S. Congress has more women than ever but is nowhere near reaching parity with men.

Herring, who has been a delegate since 2009, said that the recently recessed legislative session in Richmond boasted the most diversity, including the most women, she has seen in her career. “It’s satisfying to see that [elected representatives] are more reflective of the population they represent,” she said.

Among the issues facing women eager to enter the political arena, said Holton, “is income inequity. Because income inequity is gender inequity.”

Holton added that women seem to have “a narrower range of ‘style’ options” when it comes to governing. “I had to use more sugar than force, which I might have anyway, but I certainly had a narrower range of acceptable alternatives.”

Plum, a 30-year veteran of the State House who has never had the chance to cast a vote regarding Virginia’s Equal Rights Amendment (it died in committee again this year), said the “crusty old men who ran this place for decades clearly didn’t have the skills to do it right.” He added that he has seen the pace of women reaching elective office increase substantially, particularly as of late.

Filler-Corn, the first mother to lead her party, recalled opponents holding up posters of her children and insisting that “if you want to make a difference in kids’ lives, raise your own,” the message being women should stay out of politics.

“But we have to [run for office],” she said, “because we know what’s in our hearts, we know our values are on the right side of the issues, on the right side of history.”

The annual Pennino panel discussion is named after the late Martha V. Pennino, a long-standing member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, 16 years as Vice Chairman, and who also served on Mason’s Board of Visitors. A video recording of the event will be available at a later date.