Sunday, September 20, 2020

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Influx of Female Leaders in Madison Seen as a Sign of Progress

Who runs the world?

When music icon Beyoncé asked that question in a popular 2011 song, the emphatic answer was “girls.” Applied to Madison, a more accurate refrain might be, “experienced and talented women.” Though not nearly as catchy, it’s a phrase that fairly describes the composition of elected officials that Madison residents have chosen to lead and represent their town.

Following the 2019 municipal elections in which Peggy Lyons (D) won the first selectman’s position, Madison’s three most prominent elected boards are now all led by women, with Lyons joining Board of Finance Chair Jean Fitzgerald (R) and Board of Education Chair Katie Stein (D). Madison has also selected women to represent it on the state level, with State Representative Noreen Kokoruda (R-101) having held that position since 2011, and State Senator Christine Cohen (D-12) taking office last year.

“What I love about it is no one really realized this,” Lyons told The Source shortly after taking office. “It shows how natural and organic [it is], to have these qualified people getting elected and appointed...and it wasn’t all about a gender thing, it just happened.”

As leaders, role models, politicians, legislators, mothers, or decision-makers, all of these women have followed different paths, and spoke of different experiences as they navigated often male-dominated environments or industries. But all agreed on one thing: Having women in prominent, powerful positions is good for equity and good for everyone.

“I don’t think gender makes you a stronger or weaker elected official,” Fitzgerald said. “However, I do believe that there are any town, in any state, in any country in which you start to see a change from the status quo, and I think that’s a powerful statement...I’m absolutely grateful for being part of that right now.”

Non-partisan national advocacy group Represent Women ranked Connecticut 24 out of 50 states in 2019 for gender parity in state, local, and federal elected positions.

Fitzgerald, who started on the Board of Education before joining the Board of Finance in Madison, spoke specifically to the ability of women in prominent positions to lift up and inspire other women.

Before first putting her name out there and seeking elected office, Fitzgerald said that she had found the predominantly male makeup of top office holders in Madison “intimidating.” She cited Kokoruda as both a personal mentor—someone whose political acumen and depth of practical knowledge served as an invaluable resource—as well as a “trailblazer” who helped demonstrate that women had every right and reason to have opportunities in these traditionally male roles.

“[Kokoruda] is a great resource for everyone, but I think she really understands the fact that for a long time, it’s male dominated—local government tends to be,” Fitzgerald said.

That kind of inspiration can start early. Lyons spoke of the effect of exposing her two young children to female leaders.

“I also see it as a role model for men and boys,” Lyons said. “I have a son, and to me, he shouldn’t differentiate—all people can accomplish all things. He can have a woman as a role model...You learn from someone you admire, male or female.”

Outside of government, Madison’s women leaders detailed other experiences that shaped their attitudes about the world and the roles available to and barriers facing female leaders. Both Lyons and Cohen worked in corporate environments before seeking public office. Lyons worked in New York City, mostly in the financial sector, while Cohen cut her teeth in client-side business operations at Fortune 100 companies.

After experiencing some of the lack of gender parity in the private sector, Cohen said she is more aware in her legislative work as far as the importance of empowering female business leaders. She cited state and federal programs that have recently focused more on providing business opportunities for women.

“We can get more and more women believing that this is something they can do, manage a business,” Cohen said, “and still have some of the typical gender things that we encounter as females. Raising a family and things of that nature.”

Cohen, a mother of three and small-business owner herself, said that raising a family doesn’t mean you had to give up on other aspects of your life, particularly when you are the most capable person for a job or leadership position.

“Seeing these women in these positions will enable other women to sort of be reflective about that, and say, ‘Oh, hey, yes—I could do something like this. I never thought I would be able to do that…[but] I really can have a family, and be a great leader, [or] run a business.’”

Family, instead of a detriment, can in fact play a large part in empowering women to lead. Stein cited her family is one of the primary reasons she got into politics and leadership in the first place, in fact.

Seeking to find a way to “do something, do more” in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, Stein said her public service has always been deeply connected to her personal life. She also spoke of her mother as being a primary source of support and inspiration.

“Working with kids as a career as well...that couples with my personal life and family here in Madison, and the Board of Education seemed the most likely avenue for me to pursue,” Stein said.

Leadership was not something Stein said she originally sought out—it “just kind of happened,” she said. But as a chair, she said she has found deep connections with board members and constituents, and also plenty of support from Madison’s other female leaders.

“My leadership philosophy is really collaboration, listening, and really working with the strengths of individual board members...and I think our board is in a really good place,” she said.

In Madison, the woman who has most served as the embodiment of “you can do it, too,” is Kokoruda, whose long public service career and deep involvement in the community has earned her the trust and respect of men and women across the political spectrum. Lyons, Fitzgerald, Stein, and Cohen all cited her influence in various ways—as a professional mentor, personal role model, or just as an example of highly capable and non-partisan leader who was not afraid to step into male-dominated spaces.

Kokoruda served for many years on the Board of Selectmen in Madison before being elected state representative in 2011. She spoke of often being the only woman in the room in Madison early in her political career, and how she would reach out to new faces in Madison, both male and female, but particularly women.

“It doesn’t really matter what party it is,” Kokoruda said, “[Madison’s current leaders] have really stepped up…[They] have always put the town first.”

Kokoruda recalled an event she held several years ago, where she invited every female leader and politician in Madison to gather in a non-partisan fashion, focusing on collaboration and lifting each other up.

Lyons, Stein, Fitzgerald, and Cohen were all at that meeting, Kokoruda remembered.

Putting gender aside, Madison’s female leaders said that it was most important that the town was being led by capable, dedicated, and unselfish people, and that achieving gender equity should be about making sure the best people are empowered to govern and lead.

“I think the more important point is that we’re all strong...leaders,” said Stein. “And that truly, I think, is gender non-specific.”

“It’s about people who are willing to do the right thing, and people who are willing to check their party at the door...It’s about the town and it’s about the people in the town,” said Fitzgerald.

Jesse Williams covers Guilford and Madison for Zip06. Email at .

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