Opinions/Editorials (OpEd) by Claire Guthrie Gastańaga
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Mr. Wilkins, Use Your Clout for a Woman as Next Speaker
The Virginian Pilot, 23 June 2002: J1.

When Vance Wilkins resigned as Speaker of the House of Delegates earlier this month, he tried to excuse his misconduct by pleading ignorance of ordinary standards of decent behavior. He argued that, in some past time, it was okay for men in power to force unwanted sexual advances on women.

No one bought the argument, although too many tried to equate his behavior to unacceptable but less serious forms of harassment or inappropriate but nonetheless consensual behavior by other persons in leadership positions.

Now that he has done the right thing by resigning, it is time for Wilkins to show real leadership in seeking to change forever the society in which sexual harassment, sexual assault and domestic violence continue to plague our workplaces, homes, schools and communities.

Wilkins can lead by putting his substantial political capital and money to work on behalf of Virginia women.

First, he can advocate the election of a woman to replace him as Speaker. A number of qualified Republican women serving in the House who could serve well as speaker.

The unfortunate comments about the Wilkins complainant, made by some long-serving Republican members of the House, suggest that this may be a time when traditional arguments in favor of electing the most senior, rather than the most qualified, person might be less compelling.

The election of a woman as the leader of the House of Delegates and the second most powerful official in Virginia government (next to the Governor) would do much to change the institution of the House itself. It would also help set a new course for Virginia in which women, who make up half the state’s population, actually hold the reins of power.

A woman speaker could bring her unique perspective directly to bear on appointing committee members and chairs, assigning legislation to committees, guiding budget deliberations, and bringing to fruition Wilkins proposed strategic plan for Virginia’s future.

Her election would set the stage for Virginia to join other leading states in electing our first woman governor, and enhance the prospects that greater numbers of women, Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike, will be encouraged to seek election to other state and local offices.

Why do we want more women to run for political office and win? Virginia currently ranks 43rd in the nation in the number of women (15%) serving in our legislature.

And, a 1991 study by the Center for the American Woman and Politics found that the increased presence of women in state legislatures has an impact that is evident regardless of the party, ideology, feminist identification, constituency, seniority, age, or political insider status of the women who are elected.

For example, the study found that women legislators are more likely than their male colleagues to give top priority to public policies related to their traditional roles as care givers, issues dealing with children, education, environment, aging, families, and health care.

Women legislators are also more likely, in my experience, to make decisions by consensus– a process that could help assure that we would never face another budget impasse generated by ego-driven ultimatums.

In addition to advocating the election of a woman to succeed him as speaker, Wilkins can lead by contributing the roughly $170,000 left in his political action committee, the Dominion Leadership Fund, to organizations serving Virginia women and girls.

He can contribute these funds to:

XX-- Local Girl Scouts organizations in his district that provide leadership and other positive opportunities for young girls.

The Virginia Foundation for Women to help endow either the Virginia Women’s Leadership Project, a collaboration facilitating the appointment of women to public positions; or the Women’s History Month project, designed to educate children about women who have made important contributions to Virginia.

Virginians Against Domestic Violence, a nonprofit coalition dedicated to the elimination of domestic violence.

The AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund to support legal services for women and girls who are victims of sexual harassment at Virginia schools and colleges.

The Republican WISH List, a national organization dedicated to electing more Republican women.

Make Women Count PAC, a statewide bi-partisan committee dedicated to electing more women to the General Assembly, or other organizations dedicated to the election of more women to state, local and federal offices.

Or he can fund sexual harassment training for his colleagues in the House of Delegates.

All of these would be worthwhile investments of Wilkins’ leadership funds that would leave a positive legacy to the women and girls of Virginia.

If Wilkins acts on even a few of these suggestions, something good could come out of all of this.

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