ELIZABETHTOWN - History was made Monday inside the Essex County municipal center, but few of the gathered political leaders were aware of it.
Four women were sworn into office as Essex County supervisors - and the addition of these four supervisors from Essex, Crown Point, Ticonderoga and Minerva respectively, swell the total number of female supervisors in the county to seven, an all-time high.
But progress toward gender equality is slow, even as historic gender barriers erode, advocates and academics say.
Across the state, the number of women in local elected positions still lags far behind their male counterparts.
The number of women holding local elected office is growing, but drawing even with men is not on the immediate horizon, said Dr. Dina Refki, CEO of the Center for Women in Government & Civil Society at Albany University.
"We are seeing progress, but the it is slow and uneven, so we are still have not reached the 50 percent mark," Refki said. "Specifically in New York, we haven't yet reached the critical mass we are looking for."
She noted that at the state level, the number of women in the Senate and Assembly has slowly swelled over the last 40 years.
In 1975, only nine of the 210 total seats in the two legislative bodies were occupied by women. In 2009, this number swelled to 52, or 24.5 percent of the total legislative seats.
Two women, Republican Ida Sammis and Democrat Mary Lilly, first joined the state Assembly in 1919, a year after suffrage.
But even with the recent increase, New York ranks 24th among the states in terms of female political involvement.
Refki noted that no data that compares the rates in trends regarding women in local governments in rural and urban settings is available.
But according to Mark LaVigne of the New York State Association of Counties, women are still well behind their male counterparts when it comes to county leadership posts.
Only five of the 58 county chairs and four of the 17 county executives seats statewide are currently held by women.
In Essex County, the first two women were elected to the board in 1980. St. Armand Supervisor Joyce Morency joined them in 1982 and became the first female county chair in 1995.
"When I first came on the board, the good old boys were here and it was a lot different than it is now," Morency said. "It took a long while to get comfortable because there was a certain amount of control. That's the way it was done years ago."
The newly elected Ticonderoga Supervisor Deb Malaney, Minerva Supervisor Sue Montgomery-Corey, Crown Point Supervisor Bethany Kosmider and town of Essex Supervisor Sharon Boison join Morency, Lori Lincoln-Spooner, and recent board chair Cathy Moses in the county legislative chambers.
Shortly after taking her oath, Malaney reflected on the larger social significance of her election and the forces driving a push to governmental equality.
"It's obviously a sign of the times, it's a generational shift," Malaney said. "Women have been in the workforce for sometime now and we are now coming forward to serve."
The seven women now compose 39 percent of the 18-member board, a figure well ahead of most counties, both rural and urban.
Several counties in the region have boards composed almost entirely of men. The boards in Warren and Franklin counties, for instance, are entirely male. In Clinton County, women hold only two of the 10 county legislative seats.
Local state Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward is a former member of the Essex County Board of Supervisors and in 1998 became the second female board chair after Morency.
She said that when she first joined the board, she was faced with stereotypes that only made proving her political abilities all the more difficult.
"When I walked into the board of supervisors, some of the guys called me powder puff," she said. "I have never used a powder puff in my life, but that's what you were greeted with.
But not everyone was so skeptical of the political abilities of a woman.
"I will say that there were men on the board at the time, like George Cannon, who took me under their wing."
The region has seen the rise of not only Sayward, but also state Senator and former chair of the Warren County board Betty Little, Assemblywoman Janet Duprey and her peer Dede Scozzafava.
Sayward said Tuesday she believes that hard-wired differences between the sexes can be a female politician's strength, not a weakness.
"We are really good at bringing people to consensus," Sayward said. "If there is an uprising in the house, who's the one that has to get involved and get everybody to compromise? I think women are really good at that."
Sayward said that with women facing the many choices regarding children and careers, getting into politics is all about timing. But these options shouldn't discourage a woman's involvement.
For her part, she waited until her youngest child went to college.
Longtime Franklin town Supervisor and the first woman to hold the office of town supervisor in Franklin County, Mary Ellen Keith, left office only last week.