News Local/State

IL + #MeToo: The Push For More Women In Politics

Comptroller Susana Mendoza addresses a women's march earlier this year in Springfield.

Comptroller Susana Mendoza addresses a women's march earlier this year in Springfield. Brian Mackey/NPR Illinois

This month marks a year since the Me Too movement went viral as a hashtag on social media (after having first been started in 2006 by Tarana Burke.) This week, we hear from several women in Illinois whose work in government has been affected. The first woman we spoke to is Susana Mendoza, state Comptroller and member of the Illinois Anti-harassment Equality and Access Panel.

"In order for the issue of sexual harassment to truly ever change, the entire culture has to change. And that means that women have to be in a position where they're making the rules," Mendoza said. She told us more about the panel's findings and goals, including for Illinois to be the first state with a 50% or majority female legislature.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Susana Mendoza: Of all the things that we talked about in the panel, [the push for gender parity] is the most exciting one for me because I think it gets to the root of the issue of inequality and why women are subjected to sexual harassment. In years past, it was just swept under the rug, or the way it was dealt with was just for men to tell other men to just knock it off. So in order for the issue of sexual harassment to truly ever change, the entire culture has to change. And that means that women have to be in a position where they're making the rules. The current rules that women have to abide under or live under are rules made by men. 

We live in a society where, for example, the statute of limitations related to even making a complaint about sexual harassment or sexual assault, are very short. Why are they short? Because, frankly, it's been the men who had been writing these laws and passing them, with very little input or even voting power from women.

When there are more women in office, just by default, you're going to have laws that are shaped through the prism of a woman's eyes and not just the men who had been historically in charge of setting those rules and those expectations of how you live within them.

Rachel Otwell, NPR Illinois: You want the majority of the state legislature to eventually be female. Tell us about that.

There is no state in the country that has ever had a female-majority legislature, both House and Senate together, and Illinois is relatively close. I mean 35% may sound like a long way away from 50%, but when you put it into the perspective of how we even got to 35% - I think this is the key. Look at the three people on the panel. State Sen. Melinda Bush, myself and State Rep. Carol Ammons, and all three of us got to the legislature by running against the party's preferred candidate. So we were not the candidate that the party recruited.

We were not the candidates that the party invested in. We had to take on the current establishment. Carol did it on her first try and Melinda was able to basically scare every man out of wanting to run against her because she's such a badass. But essentially we had to really force our way into the room and bring our own seat with us to the table.

If you think about the fact that the three of us on the panel got there on our own, and that the legislature today is comprised of 35% women: what would happen if the state parties were to unabashedly and intentionally try to recruit women and elevate them into a position where they could run for and win legislative office? And, even more so, [if they were to] take advantage of every opportunity where there is a vacancy to actually promote a woman into that spot instead of automatically going to a list of 10 men who are ready and waiting to be pulled up the ladder and put into a legislative seat, whether it's in the House or the Senate.

You have Christine Radogno, who was the highest-ranking Republican woman in Illinois. She resigned her seat in the Senate, and I'm not talking about her leadership post, which of course went to Bill Brady. I'm talking just about her actual seat, her Senate seat. There was a list of 10 people. All men. There really was no effort made to try to actively recruit a woman to replace the seat of the highest-ranking female Republican in Illinois politics. So I really feel that with the parties, both the Democratic and the Republican Party, there's no excuse for not intentionally trying to elevate women.

Why this specific need to focus on political campaigns and those workers, and what other recommendations do you have?

So the reason we focused on campaigns is because right now there's a lot of legislative task forces and different groups who are focusing on actual legislation for things in the workplace, but we have to keep in mind that campaigns are very different than normal work environments. Campaigns tend to be very short-lived. Sometimes a campaign will go two weeks before the candidate decides that they're not going to go the distance and they disassemble their campaign before it even essentially got started. Other campaigns might last five months. And the longest campaigns tend to last two years at the very most. So it's a very, very transient type of environment where people come and go. There are volunteers, there are independent contractors. None of the actual existing labor laws actually protect campaign workers.

So the campaigns themselves live in a very gray area when it comes to what kind of protections are in place. So our focus really needed to be: forget about what happens in the actual normal workspace where there are all these already existing rules and procedures. How do we create a culture in political campaigns where from the very top, from the principal who's running for office, where they can set the tone for what kind of campaign environment they want to have for their workers, paid staff, for their volunteers and for their contractual employees. And that's a very different task than dealing with the normal workspace.

That's what we tried to concentrate our recommendation towards. Both from the highest level of the party structures themselves, that have an infrastructure in place, to also those umbrella organizations, who, for example, could put pressure on run of the mill campaigns to create a culture that is zero tolerance, or as close to that as possible, when it comes to things like bullying in the campaign space or sexual harassment and things of that nature.

You're Latina, and I was wondering if the #MeToo movement is resonating for you in a way that might be different at all from what you have witnessed your white peers processing?

Well, I think any woman of color would tell you that her story is similar yet different at the same time. But I think we all can very much feel a part of the movement. Remember, the movement is not just about sexual harassment, right? It's about struggles with power, and well, women primarily. Of course, we've heard a lot more stories and attention on the issue when it's been white women who have brought their stories to the forefront.

Yet, you know, this is not a new issue that women of color have been talking about all of the sudden. I mean, our stories just perhaps haven't gotten as much attention or focus as when you hear a famous white woman, for example, share her story. I think women of color have been living through this in similar ways as women who are white, yet we have not felt that we've really been a part of the conversation until lately.