Women gain ground in state Capitol but say they have a way to go

By Meg Kissinger
Published November 7th 2002 in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Move over, Miss Forward.

The famous state statue that sits outside the state Capitol is getting some company in high places. Since Tuesday, Wisconsin has seen:
    - The first woman elected attorney general (Peg Lautenschlager).
    - The first woman elected lieutenant governor (Barbara Lawton).
    - The first woman elected majority leader of the state Senate (Mary Panzer).

Still, it's not exactly Fried Green Tomatoes Goes to Madison time. Women lost two seats in the state Senate. But they did pick up six in the Assembly.

The total of 35 women elected to the state Legislature on Tuesday falls one short of the all-time high elected to the 1993 session, notes Peter Cannon, legislative analyst for the Legislative Reference Bureau.

"We're not looking at a sea change here," he said.

There are glimmers of hope, however tiny, for people who think Wisconsin should have more women in public office: 38 women ran; 29 won, including one who beat another woman. Of the five open seats sought by women, all five were filled by women.

"It's three-quarters of a brass band," said Virginia Sapiro, professor of political science and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "It's time to celebrate, but there is still a lot of work to be done."

Women need to be encouraged to run, Sapiro said.

"We have to integrate women more in the process," she said.

Mary Ellen Stanek, managing director of Baird Advisors and president of Baird Funds, agrees. Stanek works to get women involved in politics. While she is encouraged by the recent gains, Stanek says much more needs to be done to give women parity in politics.

"Why are there so few women in the boardroom? Why isn't there more proportional representation for women?" she asked.

By and large, 2002 will not be remembered fondly as the Year of the Woman, some of the newly elected women say. That's true nationally, too. Women barely held ground in Tuesday's vote for federal office. The number of women in Congress remains the same - 59 in the House and 13 in the Senate. The number of female governors rose - by one - from five to six.

Despite its reputation as a progressive state, and the fact that Wisconsin was the first state to ratify suffrage for women back in 1919, Wisconsin has lagged behind many other states in electing women to public office. Wisconsin voters didn't get around to electing a woman to Congress until 1998. Tammy Baldwin remains Wisconsin's only female in Congress.

The Center for American Women in Politics ranked Wisconsin 22nd last year for the ratio of women in the state Legislature. At that time, just 23.5% of state legislators were women, or 31 of 132. With Tuesday's results, the percentage inches up to just 26.5%, or 35 of 132.

Lawton, the newly elected lieutenant governor, isn't ready to pop open the champagne and celebrate women's gains yet either.

"Women are still seriously underrepresented in the state of Wisconsin," she said.

Until women are given more leadership roles in the Legislature, there is no real incentive for women to run, Lawton said.

"It's nice to get elected, but if we just sit around and do needlework in the corner while the men go off and make the real decision on the golf course, what have we gained?" she asked. "We have not got women creating role models to encourage younger women to run."

Lautenschlager, the state's first female attorney general, said she tried to stay away from making gender a part of the election.

"My dream is that someday people will vote on the issues, not gender," she said.

Today's voters seem to pay less attention to gender, said Lautenschlager, who was one of the first women in the Assembly to have a baby while in office. Her daughter was born six days after her re-election in 1990.

The real victory for women will come when no one notices how many there are in office, Lautenschlager said.

"It's too bad that we are still so far behind that we are still counting," she said.