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Local legislators emphasize mentoring to bridge gender gap

Local legislators work to get more women as lawmakers

Published: Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014 11:52 p.m. CDT
(H. Rick Bamman – hbamman@shawmedia.com)
State Sen. Pam Althoff, R-McHenry, travels in Crystal Lake on her way to an appointment Thursday. Unlike the rest of the country where women represent less than 25 percent of state legislators, three of McHenry County's seven legislators are women. Althoff was the first woman to represent the area in the state Senate.

SPRINGFIELD – While nationally the number of female state legislators has stagnated, nearly half of the legislators representing McHenry County in Springfield are women.

Getting the percentage of female legislators to match the general population is an issue that state Sen. Pam Althoff has been interested in for a while.

“Like everything else, it’s balance,” she said. “Men are from Mars and women are from Venus – and it is true. Women have the ability to work collaboratively. It’s because we balance a number of variables in our personal lives.

“We want to be economically viable. We want to have a family life. We want to take care of our children’s lives. We’re used to being able to do that and in finding the commonality that we share instead of focusing in on our differences.”

Althoff was the first female mayor of McHenry and the first female state senator from the area. Since she was appointed to the Illinois General Assembly in 2003, she has been joined by state Sen. Karen McConnaughay and state Rep. Barbara Wheeler, both elected in 2013.

The situation isn’t typical nationwide, where women make up less than a quarter of state legislators, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Illinois, the number is 31 percent.

The gender gap is particularly marked along party lines, the conference’s report noted. One in six Republican state legislators is a woman compared to one of three Democrats.

McConnaughay doesn’t think the difference has as much to do with party affiliation as it does with the urban-rural divide, which would explain why all three of McHenry County’s female legislators are Republicans.

The three legislators agree that mentorship and women being represented at the local level are key to getting more women into the statehouse.

McConnaughay serves on the board of the Illinois Lincoln Excellence in Public Service Series, a statewide Republican group that mentors women and encourages them to seek public office and enter into the public policy arena.

This organization and its Democratic equivalent are very active, Althoff said, adding that it’s helped Illinois increase the number of women in the legislature.

Althoff has been interested in gender issues for years. She has been involved with Turning Point of McHenry County for over 20 years and spent last week at the National Conference of State Legislatures meeting where she discussed issues related to women, including educational opportunities and domestic violence.

Their efforts to get more women involved have been hampered by an overall negative perception of politics and perhaps because women have more opportunities in the private sector, Althoff said.

“Women typically do not choose public service, particularly elected office, as a career path as men more commonly do,” McConnaughay said. “Women run for office because of a particular issue. Women get into elected positions because of a specific issue that they believe impacts them, their family and their community.”

And some women legislators have all the workplace and home life balance issues that plague other working moms, said Wheeler, who has five kids, ages 10 to 18.

She’s constantly re-evaluating whether being a state legislator is asking her family to sacrifice too much, and it’s a conversation she and her husband have all the time.

“When we were discussing banning lion meat and I know I’m missing a band concert, it was killing me,” Wheeler said. “I knew there was more legislation to be discussed, and I just wanted to be home.”

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