In June 2008 the new Bristol County Commission on the Status of Women was passed into legislation.
Nine months later, nine commissioners were appointed representing the following towns throughout Bristol County: Mansfield, Assonet, Norton, Swansea, Raynham, South Dartmouth, New Bedford and Berkley.
The move to make this legislation came out of a regional council of women brought together after a regional hearing of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women, held in Bristol County.
The MCSW regularly travels throughout the state holding regional public hearings where citizens of the commonwealth may express concerns relating to the status of women and girls in Massachusetts.
After holding a hearing in Bristol County, a group of women, led by Gail Fortes, the Executive Director of the YWCA of Southeastern Massachusetts and a new BCCSW commissioner, began to meet regularly to examine research and data on girls and women in Bristol County in order to develop an agenda and action plan on women’s issues.
Out of this agenda came the need to develop a county commission. Regional council members felt this was the best way to represent women, as developing specific city-based women’s commissions would be more difficult and time consuming. For example, having to develop commissions in Taunton, Fall River and New Bedford would have been all-consuming and the outlying towns would not have representation in those city commissions.
State Sen. Joan Menard and Rep. Pat Haddad were the envoys for the legislation, writing it and pushing it through both the House and the Senate. Strangely, the bill was stuck for months in the Ways and Means committee, even though the legislation does not include any funding from the state.
But after months of waiting, it was finally passed. And then the MCSW went to work trying to find commissioners in Bristol County. This task took nine months.
On March 31, seven of the nine appointees were sworn in before a small crowd of friends, local politicians and commissioners from the MCSW at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. The first meeting was held following the swearing-in to examine by-laws and the rules of running a local state commission.
As there had been priorities set previously by the regional council, these issues were brought to the table. These five priorities are as follows:
1. Education: funding for education, particularly higher education, keeping girls in school and workforce development.
2. Pay equity: closing the wage gap and equal pay for equal work.
3. Health care: access to affordable health care and access to birth control options, including abortion.
4. Leadership development: providing opportunities for women and girls, developing a mutual support network for women and girls, and promoting advancement opportunities for women in the workforce.
5. Providing access to affordable housing, childcare and transportation.
Of the seven commissioners present, all were in agreement with these five priorities, but felt that adding the issue of domestic violence as a sixth priority was imperative.
The commissioners will meet again for their second meeting on May 6 at UMass Dartmouth and will begin their work.
Announcements will be forthcoming in the fall regarding local city and town hearings where citizens of Bristol County can provide input on issues facing girls and women in Bristol County. The commissioners will then make recommendations and propose solutions.
It is an exciting time to be a woman in Bristol County!