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Illinois Issues: Women Rising - The Push For Gender Parity In State Government

Women convened in Springfield for the second annual Women’s March in January, 2018.

In January about 1,000 people convened in Springfield for the second annual Women’s March. This year’s focus was getting out the vote. Rachel Otwell/NPR Illinois

It's a cold, slushy weeknight as about 50 people pour into the community room of a Springfield grocery store on the west end of town. They're making protest signs for the second annual Women's March. Two friends sit in a corner using cutout letters and permanent marker. Business owner Katie Dobron is writing, "Vote women in."

"If we can get people in power to understand our issues, then we can make big progress for everyone, for children, for women, for men, for society in general," she says.

Until the 2016 presidential election, Dobron wasn't all that invested in politics. "Now that I am paying attention more, I want to know more, and I want to be more involved," she says.  

Her friend Kristen Chiaro helped inspire her to speak out. Chiaro's own sign reads, "No more representation without feminization." They agree that more women in power would better society. But just what does that mean to these two? For one, they'd like to see better and more affordable access to child care. They also want to see easier access to comprehensive health care and believe more women in power would help. "The ratio of men to women in leadership roles, it's disparaging. It does not reflect society," Chiaro says. "We need an equal number of female elected officials to men."

Friends Kristen Chiaro (L) and Katie Dobron make protest signs for the Women’s March. They were part of a group of about 50 people who got together for a sign making party at a Springfield grocery store.

Rachel Otwell/NPR Illinois

Lucy Gettman is executive director of the national, nonpartisan organization Women in Government. She says she's been heartened to see, in the past two years or so, that more women are entering the government "pipeline" - women who knock on doors for campaigns and serve on county boards or city councils before running for wider office. "I'm encouraged not only by what we could see in 2018, but what we could see in 2020 and the decades going forward," she says.

While gender parity has yet to be achieved, the number of women in office is on the rise. Illinois is among the states that have made the most progress, with 36 percent of the legislature composed of women according to Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, as well as the 2016 election, have sparked renewed passion for electing women to office in Illinois.

Percentage of Women in Illinois General Assembly

Madam Governor?

Before state Rep. Jeanne Ives launched her campaign to challenge Gov. Bruce Rauner in December, there were no women running for governor. That bothered Kady McFadden, who's the deputy director of the Sierra Club's statewide chapter. Last fall, she and a group of friends based in Chicago came up with an idea. They bought the web URL: The webpage contained a big red "NO" and links to help support women who run for office.

The site has since been taken down, but the push to get as many women running for office as men continues. "The abysmal number of women actually in leadership positions, it clearly indicates that first and foremost there just isn't equality in the ability for women to serve in those positions," she says. According to Rutgers, Illinois is one of 22 states that has never had a female governor.

A similar effort to raise money for women to run for the state's highest office has launched since the presidential election. As WBEZ reports, a number of women started political action committees, or PACs, with the focus of funding female candidates. Democratic fundraiser Abby Erwin created Madam Governor PAC in 2017. She told WBEZ she's prepared to play a long game. "Having women in leadership is important … because I think a lot of these conversations wouldn't even be questions if women were in office," says Erwin in regards to recent conflicts over sexual harassment that have come to light. Her aim is to fund a Democratic nominee for governor, even if it takes several years.

While no woman has yet to reach the highest office in Illinois, Dawn Clark Netsch was on the ticket in 1994 as the Democratic Party's nominee. As a young woman, Netsch had worked for The League of Women Voters. She went on to serve in the state Senate and was one of many to advocate for ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment - an effort that failed by narrow margins multiple times. The ERA would have added an amendment to the U.S. Constitution stating, "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." During the 1970s and early 80s when Illinois was a battleground for that fight, Netsch said some feminists were going too far by demeaning stay-at-home mothers. It was her belief that true equality meant women should have the choice to live however they please.

"My argument always was that women should be allowed to move into a different way of life if they chose to without barriers, without discrimination," Netsch said in an interview with Mark DePue for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum oral history archives.

Perhaps a sign of the reignited fight for women's rights, the battle over the ERA is coming into focus once again, and a measure introduced in the Senate could ratify it by Illinois. The deadline passed back in '80s, so it's unclear what might come of the effort in Illinois and other states.

While Netsch's bid for governor was unsuccessful, she had previously won election for comptroller in 1990, making her the first woman elected to an executive position in Illinois. Netsch helped pave the way for others. Today, three out of six state constitutional officers are women.

Karen Hasara

Terry Farmer

Another trailblazer, Karen Hasara is the first and only woman to have served as the mayor of Springfield. She took that post in 1995. Before that, she served on the Sangamon County Board, and in the Illinois House of Representatives and Senate.

Hasara's inspiration to run for public office is rooted in Springfield's political culture. Growing up in the state's capital, you either loved politics or hated, she says. "I always loved it, but of course there were no female role models and I really never dreamed of having the opportunity to be directly involved in politics."

Hasara, a Republican, credits volunteering on campaigns as her introduction to politics; she was part of that "pipeline" Gettman talks about. Hasara says it was the visibility she gained through that work that made her a consideration as a candidate for county board, her first elected post.

By the time Hasara served her first year in the General Assembly in 1986, she was able to look around and see some fellow females. "I can't say that personally I dealt with sexism. I'm sure that there were men that didn't want women in politics. I think what surprised me the most was that older men seem to warm up to the idea that maybe it was time for women to be involved," she says.

Hasara saw the number of female peers steadily climb. Between 1975 and 1995 when she went on to serve as mayor, the number of women in the legislature grew from 14 to 41. There are now 63 women serving, according to Rutgers.

Number of Women in Illinois General Assembly

Hasara credits the shift in mainstream ideas about women's roles as paving the way for more women to serve. "If you look back in the '70s, there was a lot being said and going on nationally and internationally, trying to get more women involved. But it was hard. For one thing, more women were married then, we had more children than women do now." Hasara says balancing the duties of public office with the work of her private life, work often thought of as belonging to women, was a challenge.

Since leaving public office in 2003, she's remained active in public affairs, mentoring women in politics both at home and abroad. She's passionate about getting more women into the public sphere, partially because she thinks they are often more compassionate decision makers. She says while she experienced men in leadership consider their careers before their constituents, she witnessed women with priorities that most often went the other way around.

#TimesUp - What's Next?

Some current lawmakers have echoed similar views, and are pushing to put those views into action.

"When you get women mobilized, you get them sitting at the table, they solve problems together," said state Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat, at a news conference about the newly formed Women's Caucus last November. "We think it's very important right now with the conversations that are going on in the Senate that … women are at the table actually giving real input to policies that impact us."

The Women's Caucus formed in the wake of the #MeToo movement, a social media campaign that went viral in the fall and urged women to speak out about sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace. More than 150 men and women signed a letter saying they had experienced or seen sexual harassment happen within state government. Legislators banded together to show they wouldn't stand for a culture that harbored predatory behavior. Lawmakers are now required to take sexual harassment training, and a number of measures to address the issue have been drafted.

State Senator Heather Steans

Sen. Heather Steans' Office

Steans went on to say that at a national level, similar efforts have been successful. In 1977, Congress formed a Women's Caucus. Steans says she hopes the bipartisan efforts translate to policy.

State Sen. Karen McConnaughay, a Republican from west suburban St. Charles, agrees that women have a history of working well together across the aisle. During the same press conference she said, "Women are the major caregivers, they're the major decision makers at home. Many of them are the head of households, and the kinds of policies we make here are critical to women all across our state."

The Women's March this January drew a crowd of about 1,000 people to Springfield. While Chicago had its own march with thousands of people, Springfield drew people from around the state, like the St. Louis area and Champaign. Across the country the rallying cry was, "Power to the polls."

Longtime activist and education consultant, Kelly Wickham Hurst, addressed the crowd, reminding it that until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many black women, like herself, were not allowed to vote. She quoted a woman she counts as a personal heroine, Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to serve in the U.S. Congress: "If they don't give you a seat at the table, you bring a folding chair."

When it comes to a government overwhelmingly led by men, Hurst told the crowd, "Time's up." That remark was met with cheers and applause.

Lucy Gettman, with Women in Government, says it certainly feels like times are changing. She says the 2018 election represents "a very unique opportunity and climate for women in political leadership."


She says that just like men, women have a variety of viewpoints, and they all deserve to be heard. She says regardless of party, "I hear many women elected officials say that women are more collaborative in their process ... They often bring a unique voice to the process because of their roles, not only as a political leaders but also family members and professionals. And I think that makes a difference."

Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.