Growing up, Themis Klarides, now Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, said her father would always tell her there was nothing she couldn’t do because she’s a woman.

Not only does Klarides say she’s thankful for this message, but she wants to pay it forward to other women and girls.

“All I ever knew from my father, and thankfully still do, is that you can do whatever you want, when you want it, and how you want it,” she said. “Any of us who have sons, what’s so important is to empower them just as much as our daughters to know how to treat girls and women and how everybody is equal.”

Klarides, a Republican, was one of four women in public office who spoke Thursday, Nov. 14, to about 100 people in a program sponsored by the Darien League of Women Voters called “Women Elected to Lead Change in Connecticut: How Women in Hartford are Navigating Politics, Advancing Policy and Leading the Way for Others.”

The other speakers at the event were State Rep. Cristin McCarthy-Vahey, a Democrat; State Sen. Mae Flexer, a Democrat; and State Sen. Heather Somers, a Republican.

The program, which was moderated by Lindsay Boyle, editor of Heart’s Digital Subscriber Program at Hearst Media, is the third in a series created by the LWV to recognize and celebrate women who are using their power and influence to bring about change in their state and community.

It was held in recognition of the 100th anniversary of women earning the right to vote and the 100th anniversary of the founding of the National League of Women Voters.

Giving back

McCarthy-Vahey said she was raised that community is “our responsibility.”

“My parents taught me that it’s our responsibility to care for our community, to care for one another and to care for our democracy,” she said. “I love getting to support more women in being involved — it’s one of my passions.”

Somers’ message echoed McCarthy-Vahey’s, who said her father taught her and her sister that they have to be independent, educated, stand on “their own two feet and be able to give back to their own community and country.”

She said she has done this through public service.

“It’s part of a commitment to our society,” Somers said “I hope we can inspire women to run for office.”

Promoting self-confidence, equal treatment

Women in public office have to balance work and home life just as much as women in other positions, according to McCarthy-Vahey, and they need support and validation to be able to do that successfully.

“The juggle is real,” she said. “When I joined the RTM, I brought my child to meetings. I nursed him during the caucuses. He was three weeks old. He was standing out at the polls with me.”

Flexer spoke about sexual harassment. While measures to curtail it have “greatly improved” over the years, it is still a “real issue at the state Capitol,” she said.

She said Western society has been conditioned to believe women’s voices “do not belong in the public sphere.”

“This makes it that much harder for women in public office to be taken more seriously,” Flexer said.

There is a “different level” of scrutiny that women candidates have to endure than male candidates, said Somers, “and this must end.”

She said there is an old boys’ club attitude in the legislature. “You can feel it,” she said. “For women to not be taken seriously, that, to me, is infuriating.”

She added that women should be able to be instantly on the same level as any man.

“I don’t want them to have to work harder to prove themselves as being just as smart, or just as serious, or just as valid, to be in that spot,” she said. “That’s what I think we need to change.”

Sexual stereotypes

In the Senate dominated by men, if a traditional woman’s issue is at hand, Somers said, she is always asked her opinion. Instead, she said, she would like to be consulted about all kinds of issues.

“I don’t want to be a senator that’s only focused on women’s issues because all of these issues are women’s issues — whether we have jobs, what our taxes are, how we are going to fix the state,” she said.

McCarthy-Vahey added that every woman’s issue is also a man’s issue.

“We need men to be championing issues like sexual assault and domestic violence,” she said. “These issues don’t just belong to one gender, they impact everyone.

The “worst part, said Klarides, “is the ‘false idea’ that women in general “only care about reproductive rights and birth control.”

“Women care about having a safe place to live, a safe place to raise their kids, a good education for their children — those are all women’s issues,” she said.

“That’s really the offensive part,” she added. “That’s really a microcosm of what I think of the problem women have in general, not just in the state but in this country.”

Empowering women

If women want to run for office, McCarthy-Vahey said that she and other women can help them.

“If you want to go serve on a board, if you want to volunteer and advocate on an issue and help make a change in our state, we’re here,” she said. “We have a privilege and I believe it’s our obligation to share that.”

McCarthy-Vahey has served in two groups in Connecticut to help specifically elect more women to office.

“It means everything from sitting with a woman, sitting with people supporting those women, and specifically giving them the tools and ability to do that,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s just an encouraging phone call. Sometimes, it’s just saying ‘Come here if you want to make the call.’ It is so much about providing and creating and maintaining a network of support for women to help lift them up.”

Somers said she has spent a lot of time in schools and with Girl Scout troops, encouraging young girls.

“When little girls say ‘I can’t do that,’ I say, ‘Yes, you can. You can do anything that you set your smart mind to. Come visit me in the Capitol. Come sit in my seat,’” she said.

To help women candidates get elected, Somers formed the Somers Pack, which is designed to elect more woman that have municipal and business experience.

She said that women in office are an asset to one another.

“If we can get more women elected to our legislature, it helps those that are there,” she said. “If you have that support system where there’s other women colleagues in your area,” they can help one another in times of need.

Flexer also spoke about possibly changing the time of legislative meetings as well as adequate compensation for those serving in public office.

“If the meetings go till midnight and you have to wake up at 5 o’clock to get the kids to school, that’s unreasonable,” she said.

“How can women expect to pay a babysitter when we’re at those meetings if the pay is $500 a year?” she added.

“This is an uphill battle,” Klarides said. “It’s only going to be better if we all work together to make it so.”

sfox@darientimes.com