How suburban women in politics helped blaze trail for Hillary Clinton

Serving within the “old boys club” of Illinois politics in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, suburban women trailblazers have an arsenal of war stories.

“What the (heck) am I supposed to do with a broad on the board?” Nanci Vanderweel says Elk Grove Village Mayor Charles Zettek asked her after she became the village's first female trustee in 1971. “I told him, 'You know, Charlie, you're either going to get used to it or you're not. But I'm here to stay. And by the way, I don't make coffee, and I don't take notes.'”

As one of the first female coroners in the country, Mary Lou Kearns, formerly of St. Charles, was frequently mistaken for one of the wives during professional seminars in the late 1970s. Later, when she beat Pat Quinn in the 1998 Democratic primary election for lieutenant governor, he took more than a month to concede.

Mary Lou Kearns Daily Herald file photo, 1994

“He couldn't believe, because he was such a big guy, that he could possibly be beaten by a 'female coroner,'” Kearns said. “It was belittling.”

Memories are rushing back to local glass ceiling breakers this week, as Hillary Clinton prepares to make history at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia by becoming the first woman to be a major-party nominee for president.

While not all of these iconoclasts support Clinton, they share a similar sentiment: That it's finally time, and that they, in their own small ways, helped chart a course for their gender to become a more dominant force in politics.

“When I ran, it was not well accepted that a woman could or should run,” said Vanderweel, a Republican who, in addition to men, fielded criticism from other women while she was out canvassing for votes. “In that respect, I think times have evolved to where it isn't as mind-blowing of a concept.”

According to Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics, women occupy 20 percent of seats in Congress, 25 percent of state legislative seats and 19 percent of mayoral posts across the country.

This is Clinton's second attempt at breaking what she calls “the final, hardest glass ceiling,” after losing to President Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential primary. The former first lady, senator and secretary of state, a graduate of Maine South High School in Park Ridge, has not asked for votes simply because of her gender. But she has turned criticisms from GOP nominee Donald Trump that she is playing the “woman card” into a marketing technique, providing pink passes and decks of playing cards to supporters. “If fighting for equal pay and reproductive health is playing the woman card, then deal us in,” her website reads.

  Toni Preckwinkle works the room after winning the Cook County Board president race in 2010. Mark Welsh/

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, 69, a Clinton delegate, says it's easier for women to get elected today.

“For women of my generation, there weren't a lot of professional careers in the workplace, and now women have tremendous opportunities in the workplace. So, the professions that were open to women (in the past) were not the ones where you developed a network of wealthy friends. And that's very helpful if you're going to run for office.”

Preckwinkle, who in 2010 was the first woman elected Cook County Board president, is a high school history teacher by trade.

If “I'd known in my 20s I was going to go into politics, I'd be an investment banker,” she laughed.

Josina Morita

Josina Morita was a 14-year-old high school student on a school trip to Beijing when she heard Clinton address a special session of the United Nations in 1995, famously noting “women's rights are human rights.”

That experience set Morita, 35, on a path to being the youngest Asian-American in Cook County history to win a Democratic primary with her victory in the March contest for Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner. On the campaign trail, she says she's been the recipient of both sexist and racist remarks, an experience that's caused her to reflect on criticism that Clinton shows a harsh style.

“She had to survive. The culture is still very male-centered. She had to navigate that,” Morita says. “Especially for that older generation of women in politics, we don't understand fully what it was like.”

In the primaries, Clinton struggled to win over women younger than 30, many of whom supported Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“I think that you bridge that divide in two ways, which are not mutually exclusive,” Morita says. “In the short term, it's working to help Hillary win the election. In the long term, it's a question of how are we building the party to be more welcoming to young progressives.”

With more women in office, Morita says she hopes for changes including more women collaborating with one another.

“It's one thing to win; it's another thing to change the culture of politics,” she says. “It's still a very male-centered kind of realm.”

  Nancy Vanderweel, the first woman to be elected to the Elk Grove Village board in 1971, is shown here meeting future president Ronald Reagan in 1976. Bob Chwedyk/

As for Vanderweel, nobody referred to her as a “broad” during meetings after 1971. The story became local lore and she and Zettek, who died in 1995, became close friends.

“When I ran for my second term, the one man that was just adamant about me not running before called and said, 'Give me one of your petitions, I'll pass it around.'”

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