Saturday, January 23, 2021

Norm Shifting: 2021

It was not the news story that Delegate Stephanie Smith wanted for her bill. She was there as a sponsor of House Bill 41, to establish a Maryland State Bank Task Force. But the behavior of Delegate Rick Impallaria cast a whole different tone on the coverage that followed.

Maryland delegate calls colleague ‘more attractive’ in public hearing , Pamela Wood, Baltimore Sun

As he questioned Delegate Smith, Impallaria inserted a comment comparing the physical appearance of the former and current sponsors of the bill, both women. It created an awkward moment in the hearing. And why wouldn’t it? In what universe is the physical appearance of a bill’s sponsor remotely relevant to the value of the bill? 

Only in a universe where men hold the power and set the expectations. Where women’s chance of success is determined by how they compete for prizes that have nothing to do with their true worth. 

When it came time for Delgate Courtney Watson to speak, she circled back to address that awkward moment.

“I would like to counteract my friend Del. Impallaria’s comment about you, Del. Smith, by saying that it is not your looks as a female delegate that are impressive, but your intellectual strength, your confidence and your hard work on behalf of our citizens,” said Watson, a Howard County Democrat. “And I suspect he probably meant to say that instead.”

Didn't you, Delegate Impallaria? Her pushback was polite but firm. 

In a later statement, Watson added:

If we don’t choose to call it out when we see it, it’s not going to change.  I felt a responsibility to Del. Smith, who was put in a very uncomfortable position.


I immediately thought of this moment on the Elevate Maryland podcast from the end of 2018. (Norm Shifting)  

TC: We’re got the Year of the Woman in the General  assembly.

CDR: (gives numbers of women elected)

TC(going on) the context of two years ago , there being lobbyists were not even just harassing women, but touching them inappropriately. They were unsure how to deal with someone in the General Assembly who was accused of assaulting someone. In that context, the electorate responded with women leaders. And so now, I bet you, they’re going figure out a way to resolve the people that don’t know how to act, that you know don’t know how to be in that environment. Because, just speaking from my personal experience, you’re not going to have someone like Courtney Watson go down to Annapolis and accept any of that type of behavior and so...

CDR: You’re damn right about that.


I laughed. I think most of us present laughed, imagining Ms. Watson giving a stern dressing down to anyone who got out of line. But, despite the humorous mental image, that’s not really the point that was being made here.

It’s not that we’ll have less bad behavior because Courtney Watson (or any other woman representative) is one tough cookie. Going down that road gets one to an odd place where the responsibility for harassment is placed on the victim. 

No woman working in the Maryland General Assembly should be harassed, demeaned, or assaulted. It should not matter in what capacity she serves or what sort of personality or demeanor she possesses. 

I think the real point that Tom Coale was making is that it’s the increase in the numbers of women in public office that will make the difference in changing attitudes and expectations. There’s not just “safety in numbers” in this case, but the ability to build the kind of power that commands respect. And that gets things accomplished.

It’s important not to lose sight of that point.

If you had your money on Courtney Watson smashing the patriarchy in Annapolis, your confidence would have been well placed. It came with an unfailingly polite but iron determination. And it got the point across: Delegate Smith is not alone here; she has allies. And we see what you are doing, Impallaria, and we reject it.

Our elected officials are in Annapolis to do the work of the State of Maryland. They are there to represent us. Devaluing someone’s work by reducing it to nothing more than a beauty contest shows not just disrespect for the delegate herself, but also for the citizens of Maryland. If you don’t take your colleagues seriously, you’re not giving the job the respect it requires. 

Women do not come to the Maryland General Assembly as ornaments or decoration. Their job effectiveness is not determined by their physical appearance. Comments like these, even if brushed off as “compliments” or “jokes” are not acceptable because they devalue our representatives both as women and as professionals.

A tip of the hat to Delegate Watson to calling this out in real time, and a shout-out to Elevate Maryland for their uncanny prescience.

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