Ohio: Gender Power in a Time of Leadership Transition
On February 22, 1995, Senator Merle Kearns was presiding over one of her first meetings as chair of the Human Services and Aging Committee. A standing-room-only crowd was on hand to hear a bill dealing with child custody and parental responsibilities in cases of divorce. As Senator Grace Drake began a line of questioning with the sponsor, she abruptly stopped to ask Senator Kearns what title she preferred in her new role. "Do you want to be called 'Madame Chairwoman,"Madame Chairman'or what?" Senator Drake, who up until then had been the only woman chairing a Senate committee, added: "Personally, I have always preferred 'Madame Chairman.'" Senator Kearns responded, "Whatever works." An almost identical question was posed by a male lawmaker a day earlier to Representative Cheryl Winkler, the new chair of the House Family Services Committee. Her preferred title is "Madame Chairperson." 1
The two events are not merely incidents of self-conscious "political correctness." They reflect the transitional stage at which female committee chairs in Ohio find themselves. Unlike the few women chairs in Oklahoma, who are largely defined by their token status, institutional practices, and political culture, Ohio women are defining roles for themselves during a period of institutional change and leadership transition. Because Ohio women are still relatively few in number and new to leadership positions, however, their long-term imprint on leadership practices seems less certain than that of women chairs in other states. But their impact has thus far been considerable because of real power rather than numbers.
The story of leadership in Ohio in 1995 is one of transition. As the Ohio General Assembly's 120th session came to a close in late December 1994, the state's major newspapers announced the end of an era and heralded the com