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Women in government and politics
No longer in the back room
licking stamps

It was a sexual proposition that wasn't easily forgotten. The year was 1977, and the fate of the U.S. Constitution rested in part in the hands of the Illinois General Assembly. Thirty-five states already had ratified the controversial Equal Rights Amendment (ERA); three more would have to do so within a limited time period or it would be dead. Illinois was targeted by national lobbying groups as a state that offered good chances for passage.

In the midst of this heady atmosphere, two women sat downstairs at the Hilton hotel in downtown Springfield lobbying a male legislator for his vote in favor of ERA. The pair had laid out their arguments, and the lawmaker said he would be willing to see their points and vote accordingly if the women would be willing to accompany him to his room.

The most surprising thing about the scene, recalled one of the lobbyists, Paula Johnson Purdue, wasn't that the offer was made but that it was given serious consideration. "We asked ourselves if we could deal with the guilt if the bill failed by one vote and it was his vote," she said. After excusing themselves to the restroom to discuss the proposition, the women decided to decline; the irony of helping to achieve equality for women by allowing themselves to be treated as sex objects was too great.

Anecdotes like this are used to illustrate the progress women have made in earning respect in and around state government. Propositioning by male legislators still goes on today, but with more and more women in positions of influence and leadership in state government, "a woman can say no and know it won't hurt her ability to get her job done," said Carol Hughes, a former lobbyist with the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce who now is a regional legislative manager for the National Council on Compensation Insurance. "Back then . . . some women thought they had to do things that way. They didn't think they had a choice."

With women making up increasing numbers of elected lawmakers, legislative staffers and lobbyists among other positions they are beginning to gain some of the clout needed to get things done in Illinois government. That's a big change from the days when most men assumed that if a woman were involved in state politics or government she was relegated "to the back room licking stamps," said Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch.

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Ann Grohwin McMorrow
Photo by Richard Foertsch/Photoprose
Illinois Supreme Court Justice
Mary Ann Grohwin McMorrow

Prior to being elected Illinois' first female constitutional officer, Netsch served in a range of governmental capacities, including as an aide to Gov. Otto Kerner from 1961 to 1965, as an elected delegate to the 1970 Constitutional Convention and as a state senator for 18 years.

The November 1992 election put 30 women in the Illinois House of Representatives, where they now comprise just over one-fourth of its members. A decade ago, the House's 20 women made up 17 percent of its membership; 20 years ago, its eight female members comprised just 4.5

12/February 1993/Illinois Issues

percent of the body, which then had 177 members. The numbers are advancing slightly slower in the Senate, where the 11 women elected in November will make up 18.6 percent of its members. That compares with eight female senators, or 13.6 percent, in 1983-84 and a mere three, or 5.1 percent, in 1973-74.

Illinois ranks 18th among all states in terms of the percentage of women in its legislature, according to Rutgers University's Center for the American Woman and Politics. Of 177 Illinois state lawmakers, 41 or 23.2 percent are women. The state of Washington ranked first, with women comprising 38.1 percent of its 1993 legislature;

Kentucky, with 4.3 percent of its new legislature made up of women, was at the bottom.

Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch
Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch
Sen. Virginia B. Macdonald
Sen. Virginia B. Macdonald

Sen. Alice Palmer
Sen. Alice Palmer
Budget Director Joan Walters
Budget Director Joan Walters

It's harder to measure exact figures for women in less visible Illinois government positions, but there is general agreement that they have grown in number and influence. "The numbers have risen in both elected positions and staffing," said Netsch. "I think some of that over a period of time was tokenism, and there's probably still some of that taking place. The key people still are males and typically white men. But the numbers have gone up in terms of women being able to get things done.

"Some members of the legislature will never be comfortable with women in positions of power," she said. "There's a degree of condescension that probably will disappear even more. There's probably still an ego, macho problem. Men have been the dominant policymakers and power brokers for so long. My assumption is that that will disappear as younger people come in. I'm not suggesting there's no 'good old boys' network wait 'til you get a load of the Senate Republicans this time. But more women are genuinely involved."

House Speaker Michael J. Madigan attributes the changes to the changes in society in general. "There was a time when certain men would automatically dismiss a woman in business relationships," he said. "And there are still some men that have that view." Newly elected Sen. Gary J. LaPaille (D-11, Chicago), who chairs the state's Democratic party, said he's seen women make distinct strides during his political career. "When I first started on [Madigan's] staff, all the major people around the speaker and minority leader were white males. I think Madigan and [former Senate president] Phil Rock have promoted women into the higher echelons of staff. A lot has happened in the past 16 years."

Both Republican and Democratic women credit Rock and Madigan, as well as House Minority Leader Lee A. Daniels (R-46, Addison), for advancing women into positions of influence.

"I would say Michael Madigan has been avante-garde in his promotion of women," said retiring state Sen. Virginia B. Macdonald, an Arlington Heights Republican who has served in the legislature since 1973 and previously was a Constitutional Convention delegate. "We've certainly made progress. Now we're being listened to and not being spoken of as 'the girls.' We've proved ourselves as committee chairmen and in minority leadership posts. But I still don't think we are in the catbird seat. We have to fight for everything we get."

For instance, she and other senators think women deserve more leadership positions in that body. During the 1991-92 session, each party had one woman in Senate leadership ranks. "We have Geo [Republican Sen. Adeline J. Geo-Karis of Zion], for instance, in leadership why not Judy Baar Topinka too? Bev Fawell won her race by a huge margin why not her? Why not Doris Karpiel, a dynamic, very bright woman who didn't even have a Democratic opponent? But I think the pattern of thinking is, 'Well, we have women in the leadership; we'll put them in leadership in token numbers.' " A second Republican woman, Sen. Laura Kent Donahue (R-48, Quincy), was named to leadership in January for the new session. Added Sen. Topinka (R-22, North Riverside): "There are very solid glass ceilings in the Senate. We are not welcome there. We are there because the public puts us there. There are all these land mines you have to step around. You're tired at the end of the day because you go through circuitous maneuvers strictly because of your gender, and that's B.S. I'm extremely irritated by it."

Karpiel, though, doesn't share her colleagues' frustration. The Roselle Republican says the relatively small number of women in leadership simply reflects the paucity of female senators. "I think there'd be less of a feeling of discrimination if they would stop putting themselves into a category. I've never had a problem getting on committees I wanted.

February 1993/Illinois Issues/13

Women in State Legislatures
Of course, you're talking to someone who got married in the 1950s. This for me is a real revolution. Maybe the younger women see it as slow, but the choices for me were to get married and/or become a teacher, nurse or secretary. There were very few options."

Mark Gordon, director of communications for Senate Republicans, said, "There's never been any attempt to say, 'O.K., we'll put a certain number of women in leadership.' We try to avoid a quota system. It's certainly true that things have changed over the past decade or two, and that's being reflected in the [gender] makeup of the bodies of the House and Senate. But the change in leadership maybe has taken place a little more slowly because the process does put a certain amount of import on how many years a member has served. We're now getting to the point where women are getting into positions of seniority."

Sen. Alice Palmer (D-13, Chicago) agreed with Gordon. "Gaining top leadership posts will happen in time," she said. "I certainly have respect for seniority, but that's all the more reason women need greater numbers and the longevity. That's probably some way off."

While there may be widely divergent views on the size and pace of women's strides, there is some general agreement that they have their own approach to governing and lawmaking.

"I do think women bring a different management style," said Joan Walters, director of Gov. Jim Edgar's Bureau of the Budget. "I think women tend to be less competitive and tend to be more team-builders, consensus-builders. It is not the kind of hierarchical approach of traditional male management. With women in budget work, there's an attempt to build consensus between parties rather than just deal with numbers."

Speaker Madigan said women bring their own style to the legislative arena. "I think women have been responsible for a positive change. As a general rule, I think the perspective they bring has been more family-oriented. It will permeate everything they do." But LaPaille cautions against generalizing all women as positive, progressive forces in the public sector: "There's the naive and disorganized female directors, lobbyists and members just in the same number of naive and disorganized males."

Hughes, with the National Council on Compensation Insurance, said women have made a difference in state government "not so much in the issues to be tackled but in management and their style of negotiations. I've worked with and seen and even exhibited myself women being aggressive, bitchy. Sometimes that works. Sometimes that's called for when you want to make yourself heard. But women have a different work style; they're not as short and quick as men. They're more in-depth, more global in their thinking.

"Women have come to government with a more global position," Hughes said. "They've been mothers, housewives and what's the job description for that? They've had to set a budget, had to juggle multiple issues. Men are more single-minded. The whole idea of compromise which is such a nice, honest word seems to apply to women. I think guys are more into wheeling and dealing, which has almost a menacing tone."

Women may leave a separate, distinct mark upon the judicial branch of government, too. Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Ann Grohwin McMorrow, sworn in December 8,1992, as the first female member in the high court's 173-year history, said there exists a school of thinking that judicial standards may be and should be changing now that women are serving as judges.

"From the number of women on the bench and teaching in law schools, many are talking about using a 'reasonable woman' standard instead of a 'reasonable man' standard in judicial proceedings," McMorrow said. "They want to ask and be asked what would be expected of women in certain situations. It would represent a significant departure from present thinking. I'm not taking a position on it because I may have to rule on it some day, but this is the thinking of some groups."

For all the interests women may share, they are divided on many issues as well. "Women are not a bloc," said Topinka. "They don't walk very well to the same drummer. Just look at the range of Republican women, from [former U.S. Labor Secretary] Lynn Martin to [ultra-conservative activist] Phyllis Schlafly." Former Rock staff member and newly elected Democratic Rep. Judith Erwin (D-11, Chicago), for one, said her interests are far more broad than what would be stereotyped as "women's topics."

"I don't think it's fair to say women in the legislature are the only ones concerned about issues like family leave," Erwin said. "At the same time, that's not all that women are concerned about. I'm interested in things like reforming property taxes." In the same vein, Palmer noted that women legislators should not be pigeon-holed into certain roles within the

Party Breakdown got 1,503 women serving in state legislatures, 1993

14/February 1993/Illinois Issues

legislative process. "We're still in such small numbers. I think it's important to make sure women are represented across the board on committees, for example, and not confined to the traditional 'women' committees. We need to be at the points where decisions are made."

Macdonald also stressed women's diverse interests. For example, she has opposed government-mandated family leave legislation because she doesn't think the state should get involved in the way businesses are run. "We are not all lockstep on these issues. There are some differences that are philosophical, not gender. But what most women want to do is move the whole movement forward. I would still like to see an Equal Rights Amendment. Eventually that will happen."

"Not every woman associates herself with 'women's issues,' " agreed Netsch. "But it is also true women have certain predilections: family, children, they tend to be more interested in minority and civil rights and stronger than average on environmental issues. Most of them are societal issues that eventually would have come up even if women weren't broaching them: pay equity, domestic violence and, of course, child care. A lot of these are issues that eventually would have been considered, but they got an important focus and boost because of women's presence."

Madigan echoed her view, using sexual harassment as an example. "That's a matter pretty much unique to women," he said. "It's not unexpected that they'd try to pass a bill related to it. The big and obvious point is that there's been a significant change. As there are more women [involved in government], there are less close-minded men."

Marianne Ferber, a professor of economics and director of women's studies at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, said the progress of women through political levels is a gradual one that may seem slow to the eye. "There's been more political movement for women in local government than on the state level, and more on the state than the federal level. That's not unexpected because that's where people start out. What's more interesting to me is that 15 to 20 countries have had women as heads of state, while in the United States people are having fits that the president has a wife who holds opinions."

What may have spurred women into state-level politics more quickly, say several political observers, were the efforts during the late 1970s and early 1980s to pass ERA. "Women who started out as activists and volunteer lobbyists for the League of Women Voters forged careers out of it, similar to the way mothers who become interested and involved with Mothers Against Drunk Driving or their children's schooling may wind up running for city council or school board seats," said Hughes. "It's a natural evolution. They learned it was better to work with the system. And they saw that politics is exciting. You're finally into the frays of government, world events, front-page news. They learned this is the way to get things done. They got to know the rules, got to know the players, and a lot of women got involved. Back then, women lobbied mainly for women's issues. Now they're lobbying for all types for the health care industry on both sides, for big business, small business and everything in between."

Sen. Judy Baar Topinka
Sen. Judy Baar Topinka
Sen. Doris Karpiel
Sen. Doris Karpiel
Rep. Judith Erwin
Rep. Judith Erwin

Mike Tristano, Daniels' chief of staff, has noticed the same thing. "In 1976, there wasn't even a fraction of the number of women lobbyists that you have now," he said. "Other than groups such as NOW there weren't many at all. Now they're with the major lobbying organizations, and I think that clearly there's been an influx of women in significant positions. I think it's fair to say there's a lot more balance."

"It's a natural progression," said Erwin. "As women began working on campaigns and became involved, they expanded their career opportunities. They ended up as the heads of things or they ran for office. I think it's very exciting it's great to see after they've worked in the vineyards for a long time. Guys have always done that. [Former U.S. Rep.] Terry Bruce worked on the Illinois Senate's staff, Dick Durbin worked on the Senate staff."

Similar to the national level, it's the "baby boom" generation that holds much of the power in Springfield, Hughes said. "I just think a lot of us grew up together in Springfield, politically. A lot of these people were activists in the 1960s, and now we're real players. The whole legislative process has grown."

So where will women grow from this point? Like many people, McMorrow said the success of women in the past election was due in some respects to a demand for change. "It's hard to evaluate whether it'll persist," she said. "This last election had a substantial number of open seats where there was no incumbent. So men may have been running against women candidates, but they didn't have the name recognition of an incumbent.

"I don't like the implication that I won because I'm a woman. I was found really highly qualified. I got endorsements from both major metropolitan newspapers. I'm experienced. Sure, I'm a woman, but there are other reasons I

February 1993/Illinois Issues/15

won. But personally I think both parties have realized a candidate's gender is a significant factor to be considered. The large number of women elected to office sends a message to the slatemakers of both political parties they can't ignore that."

Not everyone shares that view, though. "We still have a 'good old boy' network in both parties," said Topinka. "There's a difficulty slating women for higher office. Both parties would only run women for high office if they couldn't be beat. Take Dawn Clark Netsch, for instance there's no way she'll be governor. They'll bargain her down to attorney general.

"Power is never shared it is wrested. To be honest, I guess that is the nature of politics. Now, I would be reluctant to put a woman up for office just because she's a woman. But those that get off the boats first have more casualties." Erwin said, "It's partly generational. No one likes to give up power. No group relinquishes authority easily. It so happens that men in our society have held the power for a long time."

And attitude isn't the only perceived roadblock. "I think the process of becoming a candidate, dividing your time and energy, is difficult for a woman to manage if she is raising a family," said budget director Walters. "And if she's not, she's probably in a demanding profession that takes a lot of time." In 1980, then-Gov. Thompson appointed Walters as the first woman liaison to the legislature. "At that time being a woman in that job was very unique. I would say that the attitude back then was not at all open to women. Now people don't think twice when women achieve influential positions."

While Walters believes women still are held up to a different set of expectations than their male counterparts by some, she said government could be considered a leader when it comes to women in high positions. "There are so many women rising up in the ranks of government," she said.

"It used to be that a woman only would get to the level just below me. I don't think there are barriers."

Netsch added: "One of the greatest roadblocks to women in elective office is money, though there's been a dramatic change in that this year. But women also still have the major child-rearing, care-giving roles, and I think it makes it difficult for them to be as flexible. Government is a very disruptive lifestyle."

She summed it up this way: "The progress of women in all fields, including government, may seem slow and frustrating, but it really has been dramatic. It's been more evolutionary than revolutionary. Maybe 100 years from now we'll look back at it and the past few decades will look like a very dramatic change.

"I think people have always been cynical about government. But there do seem to be periods of time when it's worse, and it does seem that way now. Women come across differently to the electorate. They're perceived as more independent, more honest. Hopefully it's going to be part of restoring faith in government."

Top and bottom states in
percentages of women
state lawmakers, 1993

Illinois ranks 18th among all
states, with 23.16 percent
women lawmakers in the

Top 10 states


of women







New Hampshire















Bottom 10 states


of women



















South Carolina


Source: Center for the
American Woman and Politics,
Rutgers University

Gender differences
in lawmakers' behavior

In the November 18,1992, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Purdue University associate professor Lyn Kathlene writes about a study she conducted on gender differences in lawmakers' behavior. Her research, based on Colorado's House of Representatives in 1989, when 33 percent of its members were women, indicated that women and men conceptualize some problems differently. For example, Kathlene observed, "men and women characterized crime and prison issues in very different terms. Women emphasized the societal link to crime, seeing criminal problems as part of lifelong issues stemming from early childhood experiences, poor education and a lack of opportunities in adulthood. This conceptualization of crime led women to sponsor crime bills that included long-term preventative strategies, as well as intervention measures.

"Most male legislators did not talk about criminals as products of society but rather as individuals responsible for their choices," she wrote. "This focus on the individual's criminal actions, rather than on underlying social causes, resulted in reactive policy recommendations and legislative proposals based on stricter sentencing, longer prison terms and rehabilitation in prison. "Party affiliation did not play a role in these conceptualizations: Republican and Democratic women were more alike in their views of the problems than they were like their male Republican or Democratic counterparts."

Kathlene's examination of legislation proposed during her study revealed women were more likely to sponsor so-called "innovative" bills dealing with new areas for public legislation, new solutions to old problems and new state programs. Men, meanwhile, were more likely to modify existing laws or update old laws. Women legislators, more than men, were inclined to assume that the target population of a public policy already was predisposed toward the policy goal. They assumed that people simply needed barriers removed or needed additional social supports to act appropriately.

                                                                                                      Jennifer Halperin

16/February 1993/Illinois Issues

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