Woman in the Senate
Sondra Lucht, one of three women in the West Virginia Senate, is a feminist and former state president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). In 1982, she was elected with the backing of a sturdy coalition of labor, teachers, seniors, consumer groups, and blacks — as well as feminists. A teacher and school psychologist, she is also a longtime community activist in the eastern Panhandle region of the state, which she represents in the senate. In a recent interview at her home in Martinsburg, she talked about her new life as an elected official, beginning with some thoughts on how her background in the women's movement led her into politics.
I was state president of NOW during the fight to extend the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) ratification deadline by three years. That time for me was a time of doing things I hadn't done before, learning on the job. I learned how to organize people and how to face a hostile crowd or a crowd that may be closed to me and what I am trying to present — the ERA for instance. I learned how to work with a crowd like that by starting where they were, relating to them, and then talking with them rather than bombasting them.
When I was the local NOW president we started to organize a shelter for battered women, and we had public meetings. One of the first meetings was a public forum, with 200 to 300 people attending. And we had laughing, booing, and hissing in the crowd. So I learned how to deal with that kind of situation — or rather I learned not to set myself up for that kind of situation.
I found that it wasn't time yet for the public statements we were making, that we hadn't done our homework. So we went back and talked with the director of the local mental health center about what we saw as a big problem. They really hadn't thought of spouse abuse as a big problem in this area. But at the time I was getting three or four phone calls a week at home from women who needed shelter, and we finally found a private home or two for them. We started doing some work with the mental health center staff, and they started to keep some records. Then we went to the police department and did the same thing.
So you learn to do your homework before ever going public. With the shelter, the city itself finally backed a loan. It took five years for the thing to really get going — three years' initial work, two of them just for background and legwork. You learn that things won't just change overnight. You learn patience. You learn that making some lasting change is a long, involved, educational process. There are times to go out and make your fiery speeches, but those are usually to the people who are already converted.
When I was identified with NOW, my media image — the way I've always been perceived by people who read newspapers or listen to the radio — was a wild-eyed, change-the-system-now type of person. Within my own group of friends I am seen as more of a down-to-earth, let's-do-our-homework, very nitty-gritty, more moderate type of person. So I used to get kind of a kick out of my media image. When I met people who had only read about me, they would say, "My goodness, you're not at all like I thought you would be." I ran into a lot of that during the campaign.
Of course, this comes not just from reading about me but from reading about the women's movement over the years, when the media would focus on the most outlandish speeches, the most outlandish statements, and the most outlandish type of dress. That became the image of the women's movement for a lot of people for a long time, and for a lot of people still. NOW itself has always been a moderate group, a mostly white middle-class group that both the left and the right throw stones at. We always advocated working through the system. We have never advocated civil disobedience. Rather than defy the system, we attempt to change the system and make it work for us. And that is a moderate view.
In the senate, I'm the first woman whose background was primarily in feminist activities. Normally a great deal of initial power is assumed to go along with anybody coming into the senate who comes from a strong group. And I had strong backing not only from the women's movement but also from a coalition of labor, teachers, blacks, and senior citizens. It was a strong working unit in which no one of the groups dominated.
But I think that most legislators primarily saw my connections with the feminist movement, and I think there is a tendency to discount that as true power. There is still a widespread attitude out there that if you can get these women alone, rather than in a group, you can good-old-boy them into doing what you want; that they'll see the light and see how totally ridiculous they have been.
When I first went to Charleston, for the first three or four weeks, I didn't speak on the floor and I spoke very little in committee. I did that because I knew a lot of them thought, "Here's Bella Abzug and she's going to jump and scream." That's never been my style — even in my most vocal days, and I've quieted down quite a bit since then. When I did something in the senate, I wanted to make sure I didn't fall on my face. I wanted first impressions to be good impressions. So I waited until I was fairly sure of what was happening and when it was happening, and I sat around learning and listening. As a result, a lot of legislators came up and said that very thing — that they had expected me to be screaming and hollering and instead they wanted to know if I even talked.
I cannot just be a senator. I am always a female senator. At first I resented that, but I think it is indicative of my era to be seen that way. I hope the next era will see men and women as senators regardless of their sex. Now I don't resent it so much as I wish that we were further along.
Nationwide we are seeing some change. Of course, there is the new emphasis on women and politics. Even more important, over the past 10 years there have been real changes in attitudes, real changes in the recognition of people and their capabilities apart from their color or their sex. I don't believe any longer, at least in this area, that if you are a feminist activist people will think that is all you know.
Being a senator is very different from being an advocate, and it's hard as hell. When I was an advocate, I was right. Always. I could be outrageously demanding. I could be self-righteously perfect and insistent that others be the same. In the senate, it's not that you don't have the same passions for truth and justice, but you can't be as outrageous about them. You have to take a reasonable time line. You have to consider that change is extremely disruptive to society and to people's lives. You have to consider factors that the advocate trying to cram 10 years of progress into one year does not have to consider. As a senator you have to reckon for each of those years and realize that people have to adjust, adapt, and adopt new attitudes.
I feel a real need to make people here in the eastern Panhandle feel comfortable, feel that they can trust me and will not be embarrassed by me. I want them to know I will fight for them and work for them, that I'm open, that I'll differ with them sometimes and agree with them at others. But most of all I want them to feel they have someone to represent them in a strong, articulate, and credible manner.
If, every time my constituents pick up the paper or hear someone talking about me, all I'm talking about is women's issues, then I have not related to a whole lot of my constituents up here. They need to know that I have an interest in agriculture. They need to know that I have an interest in the things they are interested in and have some knowledge about, and that I am working on them. So I can't always have, as a senator, the same priorities I had as a women's advocate.