By Samantha Caruso
“Everything happens for a reason, and I think what’s going on in Washington is a wakeup call for all of women. We’ve been laid back,” Sen. Joanne Benson said May 4 in Taliaferro Hall.
Benson was one of five women speaking as part of the “Women in Politics” panel hosted by She’s a Terp at Taliaferro Hall on May 3.
Benson represents District 24 in the Maryland Senate. Other accomplished panelists included Maryland state Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk, Prince George’s Councilwoman Karen Toles,
UMD senior double government and politics and psychology major Stacey Khizder and Mahasin Amin, a practicing Maryland attorney who is currently a candidate for the Prince George’s County Clerk of Court.
The panelists discussed questions regarding the involvement of women in politics today and the importance of furthering the involvement of women in politics in the future.
Toles, who dawned a “Time’s Up” pin for the panel, sees a new role for women on the political battlefield and sees President Donald Trump, or “Number 45” as the panel strictly referred to him, as a catalyst for change among women.
“We’re saying, ‘wait a minute, I don’t like what’s going on here. Time is up,’” she said. “You have this major experience happen in your life that makes you realize time is changing. That is Number 45 for women. We’re no longer going to be those individuals that you can talk to in any way and we’re going to be more vocal. When I’m at that seat at the table, you’re going to let me talk. I’m not just going to be sitting there, getting your coffee.”
Peña-Melnyk and Khizder agree that the key to strengthening a woman’s role in politics starts with diversifying the women involved in the effort.
“I think we need to become not just more diverse, but also a more inclusive society,” Peña-Melnyk said. “Given what’s going on with Number 45, I have never experienced the things that I’ve experienced with him as a woman, as a politician, as a person of color. I think that we have gone backwards and we need to make sure that we change that and start again.”
Specifically, Khizder wants to see more women of color, immigrants and LGBTQ+ women involved in politics.
“A lot of the feminist movement has been about, ‘well, what do the majority of women look like in America?’ Unfortunately, it’s been mostly white,” she said. “We need to include women of color, we need to include immigrants, we need to include people who are LGBTQ+. Women aren’t necessarily born female, and we need to be inclusive of those people in our politics.”
Benson is hopeful that events like the Women’s March will show people that women are ready to make a strong political impression, she said.
“I think that was the start of people recognizing that there’s a new day coming on the horizon and women need a seat at the table. And if you don’t give us a seat, we’re going to take it anyway.”
But she made clear that women still have a long way to go in terms of getting their issues heard on the State House floor.
“We look at the issues of domestic violence, we look at the issues that really impact women and it is now extremely hard for us to get those bills through,” she said. “There is an absence of women’s groups that come to Annapolis to lobby for those issues that impact women. The bills that come down to Annapolis that affect women are basically swept under the rug. We have a job to do.”
Mari Lemmie, a senior public policy major, spent the past summer working with indigenous women in Ecuador, which sparked his interest in women’s rights and equality.
“When I got back, I kind of had more of a conviction to get involved,” he said. “Attending this panel was part of a bigger effort to raise my own consciousness, because as a male, there’s just things that I don’t deal with personally. I’m just glad events like this exist because they allow me to become more informed and I can become a better advocate.”
She’s a Terp co-founders Emmalee Kenny and Audrey Sauer were very proud of the event.
“The panel was incredible,” Kenny, a freshman kinesiology major, said. “All semester we’ve been working for She’s a Terp. We started the semester thinking we wanted to have a women’s march on McKeldin, but then we decided we wanted to narrow our focus into politics and, more directly, women in politics.”
Sauer, a freshman psychology major, found the panelists’ words inspiring.
“They kept mentioning how we’re the next generation and there’s so much we need to do and it’s really inspirational to know they’re counting on us and what we’re going to do in the future,” she said. “They’re so strong and dedicated to what they’re doing politically for other women. We need them as advocates and they know that, which is amazing to hear first hand from them.”