Photo Gallery | Northern Berkshire Listening Tour of the Women's Caucus

NORTH ADAMS — The push for equal pay for women, equal access to health care and economic opportunities has spread across the nation and reached North Adams on Friday.

A diverse group of leaders from the private sector, nonprofits as well as community activists, along with city and town officials, gathered at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts' Murdock Hall to discuss issues relevant to the women of Northern Berkshire County.

The event was a part of the Legislature Women's Caucus Listening Tour, hosted by state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, and several other members of the caucus.


"Over the years there have been 190 women legislators in Massachusetts — there were over 20,000 men," Cariddi said. "So this caucus of women legislators actually started in 1975 to educate the Legislature on women's issues; this year we're focused on pay equity."

That addiction is a major issue in the Northern Berkshires would hardly surprise many residents here, but speakers highlighted just how dramatically it has particularly impacted women.

Nancy Apkin, program director of the Brien Center's Adult and Family Services, said that historically, men have accessed addiction treatment at higher rates than women. But now, she said, more than 70 percent of her caseload is comprised of women.

To help combat the addiction epidemic, the Brien Center worked to establish a day treatment program at the Berkshire Medical Center Northern Berkshire Campus, where about 60 percent of the patients are women.

Wendy Penner, director of prevention programs with the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, noted that there is not a single sex-segregated treatment facility for women in recovery in Berkshire County. She also highlighted the stories of local women who have taken leadership roles in the fight against addiction, including Adams Cheshire Regional School District Superintendent Kristen Gordon and Kenna Waterman, who founded the nonprofit Josh Bressette Commit to Save a Life foundation to assist addicts seeking treatment.

Transportation, or a lack thereof, was also a major theme of the event. Jana Hunkler, program manager at Berkshire Rides, spoke about the importance of providing funding for flexible transportation that responds to demand. Berkshire Rides has given more than 500,000 rides, she said.

"If you can't get to work, you'll never achieve pay equity," Hunkler said.

Speakers also focused on economic opportunities available for women.

Teresa Daignault, who owns Adams Plumbing and Heating with her husband, noted that the state requires a certain percentage of the tradespeople on its construction jobs to be women and minorities. But according to Daignault, only about 2 percent of the people qualified to do the work locally are women, and the state's increasingly complicated certification requirements won't make increasing the number of women in the trades happen any sooner.

"We're looking hard to try to find young women and men to bring into the trades — there's a lot of good-paying jobs that could be had by these people and provide them with the income to be productive citizens," Daignault said. "But there's a serious disconnect going on between the licensing boards and the ability of the businesses to do what they have to do."

Sharon Wyrrick, owner of Many Forks Farm in Clarksburg, said people generally discourage a woman of any age from starting her own farm. She advocated that institutions find new ways to expose young people to farming.

"Women and girls need to understand that they can do things and that they can start things, and that it is OK to do something because they want to do it, they love to do it, and they believe in it," Wyrrick said. "We would like to think that we're past that conventional thinking of what a good career choice is for a woman."