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Women in Politics Inspire Westchester Teen Girls

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The next generation of Westchester with former Vermont Governor Madeline Kunin.
The next generation of Westchester with former Vermont Governor Madeline Kunin.

High school girls from 17 Westchester schools heard Madeleine M. Kunin, the first woman governor of Vermont, and a dozen local elected women officials encourage them to run for public office some day. The officials argued that a woman’s perspective was essential and that running for office locally was the most effective way to make changes to improve their community. The 28 teens then broke into groups to plan their own political campaigns.

The students were chosen by their teachers as potential leaders who would benefit from the day long program, “Running and Winning,” sponsored recently by the League of Women Voters of Westchester, the American Association of University Women, and the White Plains YWCA, with generous funding from the Westchester Community Fund and the Kaylan Sundaram Foundation.

Maria Imperial, CEO of the YWCA, opened the morning with statistics that placed the United States 73rd in the world in the percentage of women in elected office, behind Afghanistan and Iraq among others. Officials during the day repeatedly made the point that women bring unique qualities to elective office, such as being more issue oriented or having a preference for working collaboratively.

But Kunin noted during her luncheon speech that many of the officials, in their opening statements, said they were “asked” by others to run for office, rather than “deciding” on their own. “Once a woman decides to run, it is a pretty level playing field,” she said.

Several women said that they found that as a town supervisor, a mayor, or county legislator they could have a larger impact on such issues as the finances, environment, and development in their communities than they had as community volunteers. “Being supervisor is probably the best way to get things done in my community,” said Susan Carpenter, New Castle town supervisor.

Mary Foster ran successfully for mayor of Peekskill after she realized, through volunteer work, that she had the professional financial skills needed by her community. “It got to the point where if you really want things to happen you’ve got to make it happen,” she said.

District Attorney Janet DiFiore said she became interested in criminal justice as a teenager when she observed a criminal trial and was impressed with the process. “Watching the criminal justice system unfold, I decided to become an attorney,” she said. She served as an assistant district attorney for many years, then ran successfully for judgeships before her election as district attorney. “Our work affects the health and safety of everyone in the county,” she said

Several cited mentors. County Legislator Catherine Borgia cited Assemblywoman Sandy Galef, for whom she worked.  Kunin cited the first female U.S Senator, the late Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, as her role model.

“When I was your age, I did not consider myself a political person,” Kunin told the teens, but “I was interested in what was going on in the world, and I wanted to have an impact on the world around me.” She credited the League of Women Voters for educating her politically and “getting me over the terror of speaking in public.”

She said that being effective involved three steps: “controlled anger” over a problem, the imagination and empathy to visualize a solution, and optimism. “Any time you speak out you take a risk. Optimists change the world,” she said. She also urged people to see the personal stories underlying every issue, talk to people with different opinions from yours and be nice but also strong and courageous.

Kunin’s latest book “The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family” is scheduled for publication in May.  She also is a commentator on Vermont Public Radio and teaches at the University of Vermont.

After listening to the women leaders, the girls divided into groups to plan their political campaigns. They chose a candidate and staff members such as campaign manager, treasurer, and publicist and prepared a poster with a slogan or platform. They were asked to consider funding of their campaign as part of their planning.

Students were engaged and enthusiastic and responded positively, said Adie Shore, who coordinated the program.

“We are the future,” said Elena Licursi from Bronxville High School. “We can make a difference. I have to figure out what I value and show I can make our country better.”

Elizabeth Gottlieb of Westlake High School called the conference “a big influence on us.”

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