Women in politics

Election Day saw some ups and downs for women in local politics.

Tupper Lake voted in its first female town supervisor, Patti Littlefield, and Harrietstown and Franklin voted in the third woman ever to serve on the Franklin County Board of Legislators, Barb Rice, who also currently serves on the Saranac Lake village board.

But at the same time, at least three and maybe all four women were voted off the Essex County Board of Supervisors, which would leave the board without a woman for the first time in more than three decades. In addition, the second woman on the Franklin County board, Sue Robideau, R-Brushton, was unseated.

Women are generally grossly underrepresented on local boards throughout the area. In Essex County, women make up 48.2 percent of the population, and they make up 45.1 percent of the population of Franklin County, according to 2010 census numbers, but women representatives on local municipal boards tend to be the exception rather than the rule. There are currently no women on the Tupper Lake or Lake Placid village boards or the North Elba town board, and there is only one each on the Saranac Lake village and Harrietstown town boards. The Tupper Lake town board seems to be an anomaly with two women on it for the last two years.

“It’s important for our elected officials to be representative of the population,” Rice told the Enterprise. “I would like to see more women get involved.”

Our area fares better on the state and national level, with Betty Little and Janet Duprey representing parts of the Tri-Lakes in the state Senate and Assembly, and U.S. Sen. Kristin Gillibrand being one of two senators representing the state. The North Country also has Sen. Patty Ritchie and Assemblywoman Addie Russell in Albany. Overall, New York ranks 32nd nationally on the list of the proportion of women on state legislatures, with 21.6 percent of the Legislature made up of women, according to Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics.

Tupper Lake

Some municipalities have a stronger history of female representatives than others.

Though there are no women on it now, the Tupper Lake village board has had a string of female trustees since 1989, including several times when there were two women voted onto the board at the same time. It has only seen one female mayor, Sandy Strader, who was elected to serve two terms in the position starting in 2001, according to village Clerk Mary Casagrain. Casagrain also served one two-year term as trustee in the late 1990s under her maiden name, Mary Edwards.

The town of Tupper Lake has seen fewer women on the board, though Kathy Lefebvre has been a mainstay for several years and Littlefield joined her as a councilwoman two years ago. There was at least one other time when two women served at the same time: Carol Staves and Beth Bierwirth in the late 1990s, town Clerk Laurie Fuller told the Enterprise.

Littlefield said she didn’t even realize she would be the first female town supervisor until the day after elections when people were congratulating her at work.

“I think it’s darn cool,” she told the Enterprise in a Wednesday phone interview. “It’s a real honor, and I’m glad I could be the one that made that mark for Tupper Lake.

“When you think about 800 people casting a vote for you in Tupper Lake, that is a lot of good people. It’s really amazing. And I don’t take that lightly in any shape or form. I think it’s a great honor.”

She said she keeps thinking about how proud her parents would be, especially her father, who was in politics for most of his short life before he died at the age of 48. His involvement made local politics a part of her life and encouraged her to carry on the legacy and run for office.

“He thought it was important to be part of your community,” Littlefield said.

She said she’s not sure why more women don’t run for office.

“I think it’s a nice place to be for a woman who wants to make a difference in their community,” she said.

With plenty of work experience in budgeting, business and bidding, Littlefield said she’s never felt like she had a hard time finding a place on the board.

She said the key is to be comfortable seeking out information and asking questions in order to have an idea of what’s going on. She doesn’t feel like she needs to know every detail about how to operate heavy machinery, but she likes to know what the machines are and to have a department head she can ask questions of if necessary.

“I don’t like to actually separate men and women in their job,” she said. “One can do just as good a job in any field as the other one.”

Barb Rice

No woman has served as mayor in Saranac Lake, as far as village Clerk Kareen Tyler is aware. There have been several female trustees recently, including current Trustee Barb Rice.

In January, Rice will also become the only woman on the Franklin County Board of Legislators. She said she’s disappointed Robideau was voted off the board before they could work together.

“I think it would have been kind of nice to have another female voice,” Rice said. “But, you know, the voters made the decision.”

The only other woman to serve on the Board of Legislators was Carol Perry, who represented Malone from 1989 to 1991, according to Jamie Rivers, secretary to the clerk of the board.

Rice said she thinks women are often hesitant to get involved in politics because they think things through more thoroughly, so they have to be invited to run for office multiple times.

“Women tend to be really much more self-critical,” she said. “It just doesn’t seem to be the same with men. They’ll jump in feet first regardless.”

Like Littlefield, Rice had a strong role model in her mother Gail, who was one of the few women to serve on the Harrietstown town board and was also president of North Country Community College. Her father Bob was also Harrietstown supervisor at one point. But even with that background, Saranac Lake village Mayor Clyde Rabideau needed to ask her to run for office multiple times before she agreed.

Rice said that tendency of women to carefully think things through and weigh options is part of what makes them good board members, and a good complement to men on municipal boards.

It’s also tough for many women who take control of the bulk of household responsibilities, which can often be like a second job in itself, to get involved in politics, which Rice said can become like a third job. She waited until her son was grown and independent before she ran for office, and even then she had to rely on her husband to take care of most of the household responsibilities during campaign season.

Rice is interested in the topic of women in politics, and she recommends the book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, to others who are interested as well. It stresses that women should demand equal treatment and step up to make themselves counted.

Rice noted that even if there are gaps women could fill on the municipal boards in the area, there are plenty of women in the Tri-Lakes in positions of power, like Saranac Lake Central School District Superintendent Diane Fox, Enterprise Publisher Cathy Moore and Adirondack Health CEO Chandler Ralph.

“It’s sort of fascinating when you look at it that way,” Rice said. “I think we need to fill in a little more of the gaps.”

Nichole Meyette

Harrietstown Clerk Patricia Gillmett said no women have served as supervisors there, and she said Gail Rogers Rice may have been the only other woman to serve on the town council before current Councilwoman Nichole Meyette.

“It’s historically been a male board,” Gillmett said.

Meyette said that despite being active in community organizations, she never expected to get involved in politics because she always had a negative view of them. Like Rice, Rabideau convinced her to run for office, and now that she’s on the board, she said she understands the process better and appreciates the opportunity.

She doubted she would ever get elected, but she did. When she first started on the town board, Meyette said she was extremely nervous, but she thinks she proved herself quickly and earned the rest of the board’s respect.

“I think it can be very intimidating, even as a strong woman,” she said. “I’m a very strong, independent thinker, and I don’t get easily intimidated.”

Meyette said that in this day and age, she wishes the conversation could stop being about whether women are in politics and shift to being more about what people believe in and how they will represent their constituents. But she recognizes the reality that women are underrepresented, and she realizes that there needs to be more discussion on the topic.

“I hope that in the next few years, we can get past that,” Meyette said.

She agrees with Rice that women have a more thorough thought process than many men, and that men and women working together on municipal boards can complement one another.

Shirley Seney

In the village of Lake Placid and town of North Elba, one can’t talk about women in politics without mentioning Shirley Seney. Seney was on the school board for about 10 years, then she was a trustee on the village board for a little while before becoming mayor for four years. After that, she ran for town supervisor and lead the town from 1996 to 2007.

“Now I’m just a citizen at home,” Seney told the Enterprise. “I really enjoyed every minute that I represented the people of the town of North Elba and the village of Lake Placid and the different areas that I served.”

Seney said she never thought she would get into politics when she was growing up, but as an adult she got concerned about a possible new school that was going to be built. She was constantly spieling about it at home, until finally her husband suggested she run for the school board.

“I said, ‘I don’t know anything about running for school board,'” Seney said. “And I did.”

She lost by four votes the first time; then she ran again and won, launching her political career.

“It was a challenge, in that when I would attend different meetings and things where there was mostly men, there was times that I kind of stayed in the background a little bit,” Seney said. “But then, as I began to realize what I was there for and what it entailed, I began to get very mouthy. I didn’t hold back when I felt like I had something to offer that was worthwhile.”

Seney was doing all this when her children were in school, and there were times when she missed things they were doing because of her board duties. But her children supported her, as did her husband.

Being on the Essex County Board of Supervisors as head of the town of North Elba was an extra challenge, Seney said. She felt like she had to get mouthy sometimes to get people to pay attention to her, and the men would say, “Oh God, here she goes again.”

“I really had to stand firm on what I believed in, and I’d kind of lobby some of the guys beforehand, and then they’d roll their eyes,” she said. “But you know, I had a lot of support. I never, ever remember being degraded. They were gentlemen.”

Essex County

Seney was on the Essex County board at the same time as two other strong North Country female politicians: Joyce Morency, who represented St. Armand from 1982 to her death earlier this year, and Teresa Sayward, who represented Willsboro and went on to represent the area in the state Assembly.

Morency started on the board only two years after the first two women were elected to it: Mildred Dobie, who represented North Hudson from 1980 to 1995, and Florence Hathaway, who represented Willsboro from 1980 to 1987, according to board Clerk Judy Garrison.

Since those women started, there has always been at least one woman on the board, but January could be the first time the board doesn’t have a single woman on it. Ticonderoga town Supervisor Deb Malaney, Essex Supervisor Sharon Boisen and Elizabethtown Supervisor Margaret Bartley all lost Tuesday to male challengers.

Minerva Supervisor Sue Montgomery-Corey lost at the polls to Stephen McNally, but only by a difference of eight votes. There’s a chance she could still retain her seat, since 37 absentee ballots were sent out for that town and the Board of Elections has received 23 back, Election Commissioner Mark Whitney told the Enterprise. Whitney and his colleagues have to wait until Nov. 13 to start counting absentee ballots, and any that come in before then with a Nov. 4 or earlier postmark will also be counted.

Encouraging others

All the women the Enterprise talked to said they wish more women would run for office, and that it’s been a rewarding experience in their lives.

“I think our elected officials should be representative of the population, and that just isn’t the case at this point on the local level or even on the national level,” Rice said.

Rice said it’s especially important to get women involved at the local level because politicians can rise from there to state and national positions, where women can have more control over issues like child welfare, health care and education – issues that are especially important to women.

“It is clear that we need to be more proactive in recruiting women, we need to find ways to support women who choose to run for office, and we need to start early,” Rice told the Enterprise. “Young women need to see themselves as viable candidates, and in order for that to happen they need role models. The more women we elect to office, the more likely we will be to get other women to consider it.”

Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or jcollier@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.