emily disalvo / ctnewsjunkie

Former Gov. M. Jodi Rell, former Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, and other female leaders from around the state convened virtually Wednesday night in honor of the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment – and to reflect on their careers and the importance of continuing to strengthen women’s voices in politics.

The event, which was hosted by the Governor M. Jodi Rell Center for Public Service at the University of Hartford, also featured Fairfield First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick and Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management Melissa McCaw, who shared their stories of being female “firecrackers” in a male-dominated field.

“I found it is very important to lean in on your competence and your strength and I always rest assured that I am competent as all hell and I am a firecracker woman leader,” McCaw said. “As you go through that journey, even if you are the first or one of the only, don’t let that shake your confidence. It actually makes you stronger.”

In honor of the anniversary of women’s suffrage, Wyman reflected on when she used to go to the town hall to vote with her mother. While she had never been involved in politics prior to her first run for office, these early experiences at the polls were formative.

“My mom would let me stand outside the curtain,” Wyman said. “I know a lot of you are too young to remember. She would say, ‘Stand out there.’”

When Wyman would ask her mother who she voted for, she would never give her a firm answer.

“She would say, ‘When you get old enough, you will know. You will make those decisions. That is why there is a curtain there,’” Wyman said.

According to a report from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, Connecticut’s state legislature is 32.1%  female, ranking it 16th on the list of states with the most female representatives in 2020. Despite strides in the number of females elected to office, Klarides said there is work to be done.

“Women will continue to be treated more equally; women will continue to run for office more often,” Klarides said. “But it is not moving fast enough. Whether it’s women, women of color, we still have a struggle. We still have to work harder to get the same recognition as a man.”

Greg Woodward, president of the University of Hartford, presented many statistics on the status of women in America.

“The U.S. is one of the worst-performing nations in the world for representation of women in politics,” Woodward said. “Just crazy.”

The panelists took questions from female college students across the state about being a woman in a public service role and how to keep the momentum of female progress after 100 years. One question from Benie Kwarteng, a student at the University of Hartford, referenced a study revealing that people overwhelmingly associate words like “assertive” with men and think of women as “caring.” Klarides said this is something she has experienced firsthand.

“Any of those adjectives, ‘assertive,’ ‘strong,’ ‘taking the initiative,’ those are such great qualities when you describe a man,” Klarides said. “It describes the man as strong and tough and a leader. Unfortunately when you want to say that about a woman they use other words. They often use a word that begins with a B.”

Klarides shared her own experience on the campaign trail. Her opponent ignored her law degree and instead chose to zero-in on Klarides’ time as a model.

“I had done swimsuit modeling and fitness contests in between going to law school and running for office,” Klarides said. “My opponent, who was a woman, and her team put all sorts of things up on the internet and in mailers about how that’s all I was. Swimsuit model. And they would put all of her accolades, every board she was on – forgetting the fact that I was a lawyer, and I can speak in public and put thoughts together.”

Given the strides in the last 100 years, McCaw offered some of her hopes for the next 100 years, starting with the possibility of having a woman of color as vice president-elect.

“Seeing Vice President-elect Kamala Harris make history is incredible, but what comes with that is not just seeing more representation, but a strong, competent woman of caliber,” McCaw said. “For me as a leader who is also a woman of color, that is what I hope for our nation – that we start to break down some barriers. As they watch the vice president lead, I know young girls will have a spark.”