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Brown: The First Woman

Women’s History Month gives us a lot of opportunity to reflect on notable “firsts.”

The first woman to cross a gender line and break into a traditionally male-dominated role – in any field – is an easy focus for our attention.

We highlight them in pull-out boxes in textbooks, we make posters out of them, they pop up in our social media feeds.

Some of these women, like Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in America to earn a degree in medicine, or Arabella Mansfield, the first woman in America to practice law, broke ground that has since become well-trodden by women. Today women make up just about half of the students in both medical school and law school.

Other women on the lists have less admirable accomplishments next to their names – such as Mary Surratt, whose involvement in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln earned her the spot of the first woman to be executed by the United States government. We can feel okay about the fact that very few women have followed in her footsteps.

And then there are the doors that women broke down only to release a flood of women in their wake, such as the one for municipal clerks in Vermont.

In 1881, a Vergennes woman with the delightfully fitting name of Electa Smith was the first woman to be elected to city clerk, and now 90% of those offices are held by women.

Sometimes, though, I worry a little bit that the stories of the “firsts” might actually make things a bit more difficult for those who follow. I worry that we might become complacent and tell ourselves that because a particular job or accomplishment is no longer exclusively in men’s domain that the journey to equality is done.
I think of this every time I hear former Governor Madeleine Kunin referred to as “Vermont’s first woman governor.” In reality, Kunin is Vermont’s only woman governor. I can’t help but feel that if we introduced her that way more often, it might help remind us that just one woman Governor, out of the seventy-seven people who have served, is really just not enough.

Cracking the glass ceiling is important, and we should celebrate the ones who take that step. But even more important than the first woman to break through a gender barrier is the second one, and the third and the fourth and all the rest who come afterwards, until the days of inequality truly are relegated to history.

Cary Brown is Executive Director of the Vermont Commission on Women, an independent state agency dedicated to advancing rights and opportunities for women in Vermont. Prior to becoming Executive Director, she served two terms as a VCW commissioner, worked as the Director of Girls’ Programs for Vermont Works for Women, and directed the Women in Technology Project at Vermont Technical College. Ms. Brown received a bachelor’s degree from Haverford College, and a Master’s of Public Administration from Norwich University.
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