Women as Town Moderators

(This commentary first appeared on Vermont Public Radio on March 6, 2012.) 

Susan Clark, town moderator of Middlesex, attended a training for moderators recently. She couldn’t help notice a change in the people Vermonters are electing to lead their town meetings.

Vermonters have traditionally elected men to run their town meetings. I’ve often joked that the best thing about the town moderator’s training is that there’s never a line in the ladies’ room.

But increasingly, women are being elected to town offices, and this year it finally happened. We heard a presentation on some particularly gnarly aspects of Robert’s Rules, we took a break, and there it was! Three women ahead of me in line to powder our noses.

As I chatted with my fellow female moderators, we pondered the new trend. First, kudos to the women’s movement. In my mother’s day, women weren’t even allowed to have their own checking accounts. Now we’re facilitating multi-million dollar budget decisions.

It also might indicate that we’re making decisions differently. As the field of dialogue and deliberation has become established in recent years, scholars are proving what most Vermont towns have known for centuries: moderators need more than rules and a loud voice. And some of the skills needed are those that women are especially good at.

Linguistical studies have shown that for most women, verbal communication is primarily about relationships. A good moderator listens carefully, to help people formulate their thoughts into a motion and get their work done. And a moderator is a good “storyteller”—to describe the decision-making and what voting “aye” or “nay” means in each case. Robert’s Rules haven’t changed much, but the way we apply them is nuanced, and a woman’s touch doesn’t hurt.

A few years ago, I was in Glarus, Switzerland, at their open-air, canton-wide meeting. Switzerland is the only other place besides New England that holds town meetings. As the sun glinted off the snow-covered peaks towering around the town square, I felt a thrill of excitement when the assembly elected its first female moderator in its 700-year-history—a huge symbolic step for women.

But later, I was chatting with a Swiss bureaucrat who burst my bubble. The reason the Swiss were electing women moderators, he told me, is because power is becoming more centralized. The work at the town and canton level is less important. Essentially, in his view, local issues were becoming so trivial that they were women’s work.


Sexism aside, my bureaucratic friend is correct. The historical trend has been toward centralized power. But I think this historical trend might be just that — historical.

Ecological and economic realities are making it clear that more citizen involvement – not less – will be needed to find solutions. More and more, communities are creating energy committees, public-private initiatives, and other creative local solutions to a growing global mess. The pendulum is swinging back. As the movement toward local food, local energy, and local economies grows in strength, we will need a healthy, well-trained civic infrastructure to respond.

Vermont’s town meeting tradition has trained us well. And our town moderators, male and female, will be prepared — noses metaphorically powdered, and ready for action.

You can listen to this commentary  here.