State, local offices need more women
Judging from the mid-term election coverage on cable television, there appears to be no shortage of women taking on the tough (and increasingly nasty) world of American politics.
Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman’s run for governor of California and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina’s campaign against incumbent Barbara Boxer for California’s U.S. Senate seat are just three examples of powerful women who have broken through the glass ceiling of national politics.
In Wisconsin, women have held and continue to hold some of the state’s most visible offices, such as Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton, Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court Shirley Abrahamson, and U.S. Reps. Tammy Baldwin and Gwen Moore.
But progress toward gender diversity in state legislative and municipal offices in Wisconsin remains somewhat mixed.
The number of women holding elected office in state and local governments increased over the past five years, but only by 1.5 percent, according to the latest analysis by the Wisconsin Women’s Council (WWC). The state agency researches and identifies barriers that prevent women from participating equally in all aspects of life.
Its latest report looks at more than 13,500 elected offices at the state, county, municipal and school board levels in Wisconsin. Since 2005, women have made gains on the Wisconsin Supreme Court (where they now hold a majority), on village boards, city councils, mayoral offices, town boards and school boards.
Over the same period, however, there has been a decline in the number of women on county boards and in county executive offices, statewide elected offices and the state Legislature.
“I’ve been concerned for the past few years about the falling off of women in the state Legislature,” says Christine Lidbury, the WWC’s executive director. Her report notes that women hold 29 of the 132 seats in the Wisconsin State Legislature, down from a peak of 37 women in 1989 and 2003.
Lidbury hopes the growth in women serving at the grassroots level in certain local offices might help fill the pipeline of potential candidates for Legislature and other statewide offices.
Angie E. Van Scyoc could be one of those women. In July, Van Scyoc won a recall election against the longtime incumbent chairman of the Waukesha Town Board. In doing so, she became the first woman to serve in that role.
According to the WWC report, town boards are the least likely of local governments to have gender diversity. Women serve as chair on only 5 percent of the state’s 1,250 town boards; 75 percent of those boards have no women members at all.
Van Scyoc never imagined she would blaze the trails of local politics when she moved to the Town of Waukesha in 1984. But a controversy over water access earlier this year prompted her and other property owners to collect recall petitions against the town chairman and a town supervisor.
The two incumbents had voted to allow a land division so that the City of Waukesha could drill high-pressure wells as a source of radium-free water for city residents. Nearby town property owners, however, were concerned that the city’s drilling would affect the water levels of their residential wells. Led by Van Scyoc, the opposition group collected enough signatures for the recall. On Election Day, the incumbents were sent packing.
“The existing board leadership, in my opinion, did not have the town’s best interests at heart,” says Van Scyoc. “When you’re in local government, your intent has to be to improve the public good.”
“I definitely didn’t feel the love there,” she says, noting that the other town chairpersons, nearly all of them men, “felt I had really taken one of their members’ jobs.”
Still, Van Scyoc wholeheartedly encourages other women to consider running for local government. She even offers to mentor those thinking about it.
“Government needs a woman’s perspective,” she says. “We have a unique perspective on the world, and we are half the population. So it’s important that we are represented in our municipal leadership. Our communities will be better for it.”
(lead photo on front page is Tennessee Woman Suffrage Memorial (front view), Market Square, Knoxville, Tennessee 2006, by Nashville sculptor Alan LeQuire. Photo by lumierefl, courtesy Flickr)