A week ago Saturday, the United States watched a historic glass ceiling be shattered when Kamala Harris spoke as its first BIPOC woman vice president-elect. Harris, as a non-traditional and courageous choice by President-Elect Joe Biden, paved the way for future women and Black Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) to be elected to the top leadership positions in our country.
Connecticut has a long and early history of women in leadership positions. In 1939, the election of Sara Robertson as Secretary of State led to women serving in this role in Connecticut, including our current Secretary of the State, Denise Merrill, and our beloved Ella Grasso, as governor. In 1991, Connecticut elected its first Black congressman, U.S. Rep. Gary Franks; and 1995 marked the first woman as Lieutenant Governor, Jodi Rell, followed by Nancy Wyman (2011) and Susan Byscewicz (2019). Just four years ago, Connecticut made history electing Jahana Hayes as its first Black congresswoman.
Women involved in Action Together CT, and Women’s March CT, elected to several legislative councils and town committees, have engaged in policy initiatives for social and economic justice and supported many political campaigns. We are surprised by barriers that still exist for women and especially Black women in Connecticut politics. We have watched as women have volunteered –away from their families and jobs– for thousands upon thousands of hours to advocate for policy changes and elect women and BIPOC in Connecticut.
These efforts have led to the most diverse Connecticut State Senate (50% women and 6% Latinx and 9% Black) and House (26% women and 8% Latinx and 9% Black) in history. Despite these gains, these numbers do not reflect Connecticut’s population, which is 50% women, 17% Latinx and 12% Black. Clearly, we have more work to do for our electorate to reflect our population.
We would like to partner with political leaders, parties, and diverse organizations to build a robust and deep pipeline for iomen and BIPOC in local politics. We need to identify, sponsor, and promote local women and BIPOC to lead town committees and as candidates to elected office –locally and at the state level. Several organizations like Emerge CT and the Campaign School at Yale do this for women, but much work is still to be done.
This week a major barrier was overcome when Jason Rojas became the first Latinx leader of either chamber. In our state’s history, only two women have been elected as leaders in the State House (Moira Lyons, Speaker; and Themis Klarides, Minority Leader) and two Republican women as Senate pro tempore (Florence Finney and Aldea Eads). The election of Black leaders to either of the top positions in Connecticut’s legislative chambers or as head of the two major political parties remain barriers to be broken.
One major step toward these top leadership positions are committee leadership roles. By appointing State Rep. Toni Walker as co-chair of the Appropriations Committee and State Sen. Gary Winfield as co-Chair of the Judiciary Committee, House and Senate leaders have ensured diverse leadership opportunities in legislative committees. We call on House and Senate leaders to continue to appoint diverse committee chairs and sponsor and mentor women and BIPOC officials to create a new system for Black and women of color to be the next political leaders in our state.
Diversity in leadership is good for business and inclusive cultures are more innovative. We need diverse ideas and expertise to solve the myriad of problems Connecticut faces, from the COVID-19 pandemic to climate change. The future of success of our state depends on having every voice at the table to build a just and equitable society. We urge Connecticut’s political leaders to build a ladder that shatters our remaining glass ceilings.
Valerie Horsley of Hamden and Nija Phelps of Milford are with Action Together Connecticut and CT Women’s March.