M. Jodi Rell

(WOMENSENEWS)–When she is sworn in this week as governor of Connecticut, M. Jodi Rell, the 58-year-old current lieutenant governor, will offer a high-water mark for women in the low-tidal zone of national politics.

She will join the ranks of just 26 women governors in U.S. history. But while the total tally is low, the current participation rate–nine of those 26 women will be holding office at the same time–represents a zenith.

“This is the highest number of women governors this country has had,” said Kathleen J. Casey, associate director for the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, theState University of New Jersey.

Casey also noted that many recent presidents, including George W. Bush, started off as governors, so it “bodes well for the possibility of getting a woman into the presidency.”

But any expectations that women are on the verge of a great leap forward are still, for now, held in check by the numbers. On a scoring of female representation in national office, the United States is far from a superpower, ranking 58 out of 180 countries, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, based in Geneva, Switzerland.

As she replaces third-term Republican Gov. John G. Rowland, resigning after many months of impeachment inquiry, Rell will be the state’s second female governor, following Democrat Ella T. Grasso, who served from 1975 to 1980.

A Record to Celebrate

But beyond her debatable significance to all these gender-gap statistics, Rell’s political friends say her record, on its own merits, offers women something to celebrate.

“We couldn’t have gotten a better replacement for Rowland,” said Jennifer Blei Stockman, national co-chair of the Republican Majority for Choice and a Greenwich resident. “She is up-front, honest and authentic about her interest in women’s health issues and she’s shown a real depth of support and commitment to the pro-choice cause.”

Stockman said Rell has been a “longtime friend” of pro-choice Republicans and Democrats alike. She has also worked hard to promote programs that tackle other important women’s issues, from domestic abuse to breast-cancer awareness and education. One of the campaigns she initiated, “Silent No More,” has aimed to establish a statewide dialogue on the issue of violence, in order to help people understand the root causes that contribute to domestic, workplace and school violence.

“It’s a golden opportunity for us in this state to move forward,” Rell said on June 22, the day after Rowland announced his resignation. “We have so much to do and the first order of business is to really restore faith, confidence and integrity to state government.” She said her new office will not accept gifts of any kind and will likely change many department leaders over the coming months.

State Representative Livvy R. Floren, also a Republican, said Rell has been gearing up for the higher office for weeks, as murmurs of Rowland’s likely resignation grew louder among state elected officials. “I told Jodi a couple of weeks ago that she’d better have Plan B in her pocket,” Floren said in a phone interview. “Well, Plan B was already being implemented and now she’s ready to hit the ground running.”

First Career as Mother

Born in Norfolk, Va., Rell initially aspired to become an English teacher. Instead she dropped out of Old Dominion University to get married. Soon after, she moved to Connecticut, gave birth to two children and put aside her education for a while.

Her second attempt at college, at Western Connecticut State University, was interrupted in 1984 when friends took note of her activism in the parent-teacher association and the Republican Women’s Club in her home town of Brookfield and persuaded her to run for state representative.

She won, and served for 10 years as a representative for the 107th assembly district. She was a deputy minority leader in the House when Rowland invited her to join his ticket in 1994. She received an honorary degree from the University of Hartford in 2001.

Until now, Rell has largely stayed off the national radar, though her record as lieutenant governor was not scandal-free. In 1995, the state Department of Environmental Protection ordered a never-completed investigation into her son’s alleged possession of a stolen Jet Ski. In 1997, Rell and Rowland came under fire after Rell’s husband and other relatives of the Rowland staffers received free military surplus gear intended for law enforcement officials.

Bipartisan Support

Among many colleagues, however, Rell has firmly established a reputation for integrity. She has also enjoyed an unusual level of bipartisan support, according to many of her contemporaries.

“She is highly regarded by everyone in the capital,” said Floren, the state representative. “She will be a ‘consensus leader’ rather than a ‘directive leader’ (like Rowland). She always takes both sides into account.”

But some are waiting somewhat warily to see how she handles the new position.

“We’ll all step back and give her a chance to put her stamp on state government,” said George Jepsen, chair of the Connecticut State Democrats, in a phone interview. “But there’s this significant unanswered question of how she could have failed to detect anything that smelled of corruption. We’ll have to wait and see: does she truly clean house and bring in people with integrity? Does she put effort into ethics reform and campaign finance reform?”

Rell hopes any negativity will stay under wraps for the moment. “I think we really can work together and that’s what the public wants right now,” she said at the June 22 press meeting.

Robin Hindery is a recent graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and a writer for Women’s eNews in New York City.

For more information:

Office of the Lieutenant Governor Lt. Gov. M. Jodi Rell:

The White House Project–
Know the Facts: Snapshots of Current Political Leadership:

Center for American Women and Politics,Eagleton Institute of Politicshttp://www.cawp.rutgers.edu