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Council trip was legitimate, cries of sexism weren't

December 18, 2005|By Tim Rowland

Hagerstown Council members Penny Nigh and Kelly Cromer are correct when they say it was a proper use of taxpayer money for them to travel on the public's dime to a convention of city governments. They are also correct to say that there are elements of sexism in Hagerstown.

But when making such arguments it pays to use a narrow brush, because to do otherwise threatens to land us in the same soup as when we used the Willie Mays episode to extrapolate that Hagerstown as a whole is racist.

Herald-Mail City Editor Liz Thompson ably explains the newspaper's role in this most recent episode elsewhere in today's edition, so I'll leave that part to her.

But the newspaper aside, this isn't the first time hints of sexism have been expressed in City Hall. Earlier, Nigh vented her frustration that "men outweigh women" in city decision-making. This might seem odd, seeing as how women hold a 3-2 majority on the council. Further, women such as County Commissioner Dori Nipps and School Board members Roxanne Ober and Bernadette Wagner, to name three, appear to have little trouble dealing with male counterparts.

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But ask just about any woman who has worked in Hagerstown's business and governmental circles if she has ever bumped up against a sexist attitude here and there. Ask her if she's ever been called one of the "girls." Ask if her appearance has ever been commented upon or if she ever felt as if her opinion were being brushed aside.

I believe you will get a surprising number of affirmative answers, and if that's what Nigh and Cromer are warring against, count me as among those ready and willing to carry their banners.

It's a serious matter, and that's why it's important not to get sloppy with it. Most important, you can't trot out the "it's because I'm a woman" defense every time your judgment is called into question. This can too easily spill into the confines of the absurd, as we saw when some of O.J. Simpson's defenders claimed he was called into court because he was black, not because of overwhelming police evidence.

Cromer and Nigh are both strong women who can speak well in defense of their own opinions. Indeed, they are belittling themselves and their ability to go toe-to-toe with anyone, male or female, if they are suggesting that their playing field is somehow uneven because of their gender.

Really now. Not to say he did, but if Mayor Dick Trump had taken office thinking it would be a piece of cake to boss the little ladies around, anyone care to wager he wouldn't think differently today?

At issue is the fact that there are women out there whose societal shaping has been dominated by males, women who may lack Nigh and Cromer's presence. The county's disturbingly high teenage pregnancy rate speaks to the number of girls out there who lack this confidence, who are all too ready and willing to yield to someone who will pay them the least amount of attention, however briefly.

The role of council members Nigh, Cromer and Alesia Parson-McBean is one not just of city leadership, but of social leadership. The parent of a school girl can switch on Channel 6 and demonstrate that women can and do hold positions of power. That's why public rants and temper tantrums are not helpful to anyone - but me.

You want to impress upon any young woman who is watching that influence is achieved by logic and diplomacy, not by volume.

A clear example is the aforementioned trip to the National League of Cities' Congress of Cities Conference. Parson-McBean got it right, simply explaining why the conference was useful. Cromer and Nigh chose to get loud and play the woman card. Probably this is because the two seem to pride themselves upon aggressively challenging the necessity of every lug wrench (or every bus ride) that's purchased with "taxpayer dollars," so it appears a bit hypocritical to throw this concern out the window when it comes to your own travel plans.

And unless you're purely worried about appearances, there was no need to get defensive. No taxpayer in the City of Hagerstown should overly question the value of the trip. Hagerstown appears to be entering a new era. It is facing both opportunities and problems it has not faced before. But there are other cities out there that have dealt with these situations. If ever there were a need for a learning experience, it is now - and this was one way of achieving that education. I dare say our three council members came back with new ideas, new contacts, new resources and no small degree of excitement. I appreciate the fact that Nigh, Cromer and Parson-McBean took the time and effort to make the trip.

In fact, I think the only real argument here is that it demonstrates that the council's $1,000-per-member travel budget is wholly inadequate.

These arguments are easy enough to make, because they are the right arguments to make.

Sadly enough, there will no doubt be a time when sexism is indeed an issue, and when it is, Nigh and Cromer should not be shy about bringing it to our attention. But this clearly was not one of those times. And the danger is that when you cry wolf over a situation that does not exist, no one will pay attention to you when the wolf is actually at your door.

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