Legislature launches women's caucus
'We're standing here because we want to give a voice to all the women who aren't," Niagara County Legislator Kari Bullman proclaimed to those watching her and three colleagues reach across party lines to form the Niagara County Legislature's Women's Caucus Tuesday night.
The Women's Caucus resulted from a collaborative effort by legislators Brittany Catchpole, a Democrat representing the Town of Niagara, and Chereé Copelin, a Republican representing LaSalle.
Catchpole began planning the Women's Caucus after reading a July Buffalo News article that noted that women's representation had been slipping in the New York State Legislature - even as women surged to all-time highs in representation in Niagara County, despite nearly disappearing from the County Legislature after the 2009 elections.
"We are 51 percent of Niagara County's population," Catchpole said. "Strong women raise families - often on their own. Strong women work hard. We wanted to ensure that, when the Legislature meets, our voices weren't drowned out and our ideas discounted by an 'Old Boys Network.' "
Catchpole approached Copelin, who, like her, was appointed to fill a vacancy in the Legislature this year. Copelin, a teacher, offered her sage advice dating back to the Women's Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
"I told Brittany that a woman's place was the House," Copelin said. "Well, the House or the Senate."
The Republican and the Democrat soon realized that many issues crossed party lines, and that women needed a place where they could gather and perform a reality check.
"Women often have a different perspective on the impact of government policy, the importance of certain government programs, and what government's priorities should be than men," Copelin said. "In fairness, our male colleagues do a good job for this county. But none of them have ever been women. And we want to help them see things through our eyes - and those of the 111,000 women who live in Niagara County."
The two sent invitations to fellow Legislators Kari Ann Bullman, D-Niagara Falls, and Renae Kimble, D-Niagara Falls, to join the Women's Caucus.
"I work in business, I make major decisions for a downtown Niagara Falls company, and I own a home and pay property taxes," Bullman said. "In that regard, I'm like a lot of the men in the Legislature. But as a woman, I have different concerns about how government policies can affect me, how they can affect the women I work with, how they can affect my mother. If you're a woman, no matter your party, you probably have the same worries. We're here to be your voice."
Bullman also turned to Clinton-era Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for what she deemed a guiding principle of the new Women's Caucus.
"Madeleine Albright once said, 'There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women,' " Bullman said. "We have a responsibility to look out for all of Niagara County's taxpayers, but we have a special responsibility to look out for the interests of our fellow women."
The trio will be joined by longtime Legislator Renae Kimble, D-Niagara Falls, at least until her final term ends with a planned December retirement. The Falls lawmaker and civil rights crusader briefly found herself the only woman in the Legislature after the 2009 elections.
For now, the Women's Caucus will meet monthly, immediately before a regularly scheduled meeting of the Legislature. Kimble, who with 18 years of service in the Legislature is the dean of the caucus, was named chairwoman.
"This was a good idea, and I was honored when Brittany approached me about joining - and leading - the Women's Caucus," Kimble said. "It gives the women legislators the opportunity to come together and brainstorm about policies and programs that affect women. And it gives us an opportunity to consider the impact of our colleagues' proposals on women, too. Sometimes, women are more sensitive to issues than their male counterparts, and this gives us an opportunity to work together."
Kimble said she was "honored, but humbled, to be asked to lead" the Women's Caucus, which she said was "a long time in coming."
The Women's Caucus plans to contact several women's organizations, including the League of Women Voters and the YWCA, to increase the visibility and availability of elected government leaders to Niagara County's women.
"The Women's Caucus can be an instrument for bettering women's lives," Kimble said. "I'm only in the Legislature for a few more months, but I want my legacy to be one of greater access and opportunity for women in this county. This caucus can be a vehicle for more women to enter politics, to run for political office, to become more vocal about the political process. It can be liberating."
The caucus's sole Republican summed up the objectives of the Women's Caucus by quoting one of the most far-reaching women of all time:
"Margaret Thatcher once said, 'Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a government,' " Copelin said. "We agree."