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posted: 5/4/2015 5:30 AM

Suburban voters far more likely to send women to the Capitol

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  • Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont talks about her leadership post from her Capitol office.

      Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont talks about her leadership post from her Capitol office.
    Erin Hegarty | Staff Photographer

  • State Rep. Patti Bellock, a Hinsdale Republican, has become a Medicaid expert in Springfield.

      State Rep. Patti Bellock, a Hinsdale Republican, has become a Medicaid expert in Springfield.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • State Rep. Elaine Nekritz talks about changes to Illinois pension laws with House Speaker Michael Madigan in 2012.

    State Rep. Elaine Nekritz talks about changes to Illinois pension laws with House Speaker Michael Madigan in 2012.
    Associated Press

  • State Sen. Pam Althoff, a McHenry Republican, was appointed to to the Senate in 2003 and previously served as McHenry mayor.

    State Sen. Pam Althoff, a McHenry Republican, was appointed to to the Senate in 2003 and previously served as McHenry mayor.
    Daily Herald File Photo

 
 

Illinois Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno has been one of the top women in state politics for years, but she still says women face challenges in running for office.

"Men always have the presumption of confidence and women have to prove it," Radogno, of Lemont, said. "I still think that's the case."

Yet, suburban women, in particular, are driving up the numbers of female state legislators. An analysis shows suburban voters are far more likely than Illinois as a whole to pick women to represent them.

About 43 percent of lawmakers from the suburbs are women, a number higher than the statewide percentage and the national average.

Out of 56 women in the Illinois General Assembly, 47 are from the state's northeast corner.

Just over 31 percent of Illinois lawmakers are women, putting the state in a tie for ninth in the country.

Nationwide, Colorado ranks the highest with 42 percent, while Louisiana has the lowest percentage of female lawmakers with 12.5 percent. Women make up 24.2 percent of state lawmakers across the U.S.

Why the stronger representation of women in suburban districts?

"In the suburban area where there is more population, there are more opportunities for women earlier to get engaged in civic endeavors," state Sen. Pam Althoff, a McHenry Republican, said. "Whether it's the school, whether it's a not-for-profit that deals with human services, whatever that happens to be, I think there are more opportunities for women to gather and promote some type of important issue."

The disparity between men and women running for state office could start at the lowest levels of government, state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, said.

"One of the biggest differences is getting women to run," Nekritz said. "Because men seem to have decided when they were 8 years old that they want to be in electoral politics. I think you ask most of the women here, we were not thinking about being in electoral politics."

With Democrats having nearly twice the members in the Senate as Republicans, Radogno keeps a mug on her desk that reads: "Leader of the opposition." She started in local government when she began advocating against a fire station moving to the end of her street. She then began attending local village meetings and ran for village board. Radogno first took state office in 1997.

State Rep. Patti Bellock, a Hinsdale Republican and top budget negotiator, says local office experience helps prepare legislators for state office.

"I was very active in my community, and many women are involved in that so they have a lot of perspective when they come down here, and I think that's very helpful for them," Bellock said.

Getting women to move up, though, can be tough, Nekritz said.

She first ran for office after a "persistent" friend of hers urged her to run for the Illinois House. While Nekritz lost her first race, she enjoyed it. She has served in the House since 2003.

"I think the same thing about women as I do ethnicities and a variety of occupations that are represented down here: The more representative of the general public this body is, the better it functions," Nekritz said.

Several women said family or the daunting prospect of fundraising can stymie their bids.

"I think that a lot of women think they're busy with other things, bringing up children and so forth, and I can appreciate that," said state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, the House's No. 2 Democrat. "But that's a mark of dispassion if we think it's OK for the fathers to run and come and be state representatives, but fear about how sensible it is for women to do the same."

Currie was first elected to state office in 1979, when the national percentage of women in state legislatures was 10.3 percent.

Illinois lawmakers get a base salary of about $68,000 per year, but most earn far more based on committee assignments and leadership positions that largely go to more senior members.

Once women do get involved in government, legislators agreed, it often propels them to continue running for office, whether it be at the local or state level.

"I think many women, once you get that bug, never want to let that go," Althoff said. "They understand instinctively that although it may be more difficult, you have ample opportunity to change public policy."

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