What role do women play in Illinois government?

Jul 25, 2014

A  2011 study from the University of Chicago in the American Journal of Political Science found that women may be more effective lawmakers than men. It found that female U.S. representatives are better at bringing money back to their home districts than their male counterparts. As noted in the Daily Beast:

Between 1984 and 2004, women won their home districts an average of $49 million more per year than their male counterparts (a finding that held regardless of party, geography, committee position, tenure in office, or margin of victory). The spending jump was found within districts, too, when women moved into seats previously occupied by men, and the cash was for projects across the spectrum, not just “women’s issues.”

The study found similar outcomes in terms of policy: women sponsored an average of three more bills than men and cosponsored an average of 26 more bills than men, and those bills tended to be popular, considered “important” and made it further into the legislative process than bills proposed by men.

The study says  women may be better skilled at “logrolling, agenda-setting, coalition building, and other deal-making activities” than male policy makers.

That doesn’t mean that women are inherently better politicians. The report speculates that for a woman to succeed in politics, she must be particularly hard-working and smart, so the women who are involved in politics might make it to high levels of government.

The University of Chicago study focuses on national politics. How do the numbers and attitudes break down when applied to Illinois?

Illinoisans are more concerned with policy than gender when it comes to electing leaders, says Mary Schaafsma, executive director of the League of Women Voters.

“What we look for most are qualified candidates, who are looking to represent a constituency and who know they should involve the people they represent,” Shaafsma said. “If a woman seems more qualified in the eye of the voter, all the better.”

But Shaafsma said women might be more successful when dealing with certain issues, like with topics that have traditionally been considered female-oriented, such as social justice and education. “Women bring a different level of thoughtfulness that men don’t always,” she said.

And what’s holding women back from more of them getting involved in Illinois politics? Schaafsma said she has a hunch it has to do with money.

“Unfortunately, women don’t always have the financial resources that men do, and the high cost of running for office–it’s becoming increasingly more expensive. I think that’s a deterrent. The mindset is ‘I want to represent my constituents, but I don’t have the stomach or the time to raise those funds, and if I spend a lot of time fundraising, I won’t be an effective legislator.'”

There are 177 people in the Illinois General Assembly, 56 (31.6 percent) of whom are women. That percentage is not quite the male/female percentage breakdown of the people they represent–Illinois is 49 percent male and 51 percent female, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. It is definitely closer to the 50/50 mark (or population representative mark) than the U.S. Congress, which is 18.5 percent female. (The United States was 50.8 percent female and 49.2 percent male in 2010). How does Illinois’ representation of women in legislative and other government positions compare to other states?

According to the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics, Illinois has the seventh-highest gender parity state legislature out of all 50 states. The first is Colorado, which is 41 percent female. The CAWP fact sheet names South Carolina as the least legislatively gender-equal state in the Union, with only 12.9 percent of that state’s legislators being female. Illinois is tied with Hawaii as the seventh-most legislatively gender-equal state.

Illinois ranks higher than most of its Midwestern neighbors. Indiana  is the 35th most gender-equal state legislature with 20 percent  female  lawmakers. Iowa is 27th with 23 percent, Missouri is  30th at 21.8 percent, Michigan is 36 with 18.9 percent, Wisconsin is 21 at 25.8 percent. Minnesota  is the fourth most gender-equal state legislatively–33.8 percent of  its lawmakers are women.

In the U.S. Congress, there are four out of 18 representatives from Illinois who are women (22 percent). There have been 13 U.S. representatives from Illinois who are women in the state’s whole history, the first of whom, Winnifred Mason Huck, was the third woman to ever serve in the United States Congress, from 1922 to 1923. She was elected to fill the vacant  seat left after the death of her father, U.S. Rep. William Ernest Mason.

There has only ever been one woman from Illinois to serve in the United States Senate–Carol Moseley Braun, who was the first African-American woman to ever be elected to the U.S. Senate. She held office from 1993 to 1999.

Illinois has never had a female governor, a distinction shared by 34 other states. (There currently are five female state governors in the U.S.; there have been  35  women who served as governors.)  There has been one female mayor of Chicago, Jane Byrne, who served from 1979 to 1983. Illinois currently has three women in statewide elected executive office: Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon, Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka.

Two of Illinois’ legislative leaders are currently women–State Sen. Christine Radogno is the Senate minority leader and State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie is the House majority leader. Both are the first women to hold those positions.

Women have been making their mark on Illinois government for decades. Here are seven influential women in Illinois government:

Dawn Clark Netsch

Dawn Clark Netsch women in Illinois government

She was the first woman to hold statewide elected office in Illinois when she was elected comptroller in 1990. She also served for 18 years in the state senate and was the first woman to win the Democratic nomination for governor in Illinois in 1994. She was the only woman to graduate in her Northwestern law class of 1952.

Judy Baar Topinka

Judy Baar Topinka women in Illinois government

She is the former chairperson of the Illinois Republican Party, the first woman to be Illinois State Treasurer and current Illinois State Comptroller. She was the first woman to be nominated as gubernatorial candidate for the Republican party in Illinois.

Lisa Madigan

Lisa Madigan women in Illinois government

She was elected as the first female attorney general Illinois in 2003 and then reelected in 2006 and 2010. She is currently the most-senior state attorney general in the country.

Carol Moseley Braun

Carol Moseley Braun

A U.S. senator from Illinois, she was the first African-American woman (and first woman of color in general) to be elected to the United States Senate in 1992. She was a member of the Senate Finance Committee and served until 1999.

Jane Byrne

Jane Byrne

She is Chicago’s only female mayor, who was in office from 1979 to 1983 and ran on the platform of bringing reform to the city. Efforts to name an area of the city after her have stalled in the past, but both Gov. Pat Quinn and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have expressed support for designating a namesake in the city.

Lottie Holman O’Neill

Lottie Holman O'Neill

She worked with the League of Women Voters to campaign for support for the 19th Amendment (women’s suffrage), and helped Illinois become the first state in the Union to ratify the amendment in 1920. In 1922, she won a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives and then became Illinois’ first female state senator in 1950.

Winnifred Mason Huck

Winnifred Mason Huck

She was elected by special election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1922. Her election filled a vacancy left by the death of her father, Rep. William E. Mason. She finished his term, but was not elected to her own full term. When she arrived in Washington, Congressional officials refused to swear her in and another representative from Illinois had to reassure them she had actually been elected.  She was the first wife and mother to serve in Congress and a staunch pacifist.


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