Before being urged and recruited to run for public office, McHenry Mayor Susan Low said it never crossed her mind that she might end up at the head of city government.
“I’m a special education teacher by design … but I ran for the Ward 3 alderman position in McHenry in 2001, and that was the first time I ever ran for public office,” Low said. “I did so at the urging of some people, plus, my dad had been an alderman and my grandfather.”
A few years later, then-Mayor Pamela Althoff left for her current post as a Republican state senator, and Low accepted a nomination to take over. She finished out the term, then ran and won the 2005 election.
Low is one of only two female mayors or village presidents in McHenry County, the other being Lakewood Village President Erin Smith.
That, and the fact that women are the minority across boards and councils of the county, is something Low said she’s certainly aware of but doesn’t think about often.
“In the whole time I’ve served, there’s never been an abundance of women,” she said. “But I don’t really think of it in terms of men versus women. I admire anybody who’s willing to run for public office because to put yourself out on the line, whether you’re a man or a woman, it takes courage.”
Virtually all of the county’s city councils and village boards have a female presence, but it’s a lesser one than that of men in all cases. In most cities and villages, such as Crystal Lake, Lake in the Hills and Woodstock, there are one or two women behind decisions regarding the respective communities.
Of the observed municipal voting bodies, Marengo has the most women on its council, three out of nine total officials, which includes Mayor Donald Lockhart. The city’s clerk also is a woman.
In an interview last month, Lockhart said three is the highest number of councilwomen the city has had, at least as far back as the longtime resident can remember.
“Having a mixture of male and female members is very good for a city council, of course,” Lockhart said. “Everybody adds another dimension.”
That women make up a smaller percentage of local decision-makers might not be surprising, nor the fact that women make up less than 25 percent of the nation’s state legislators as of 2015, according to data from Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.
What has happened over nearly 10 years, however, is the number of female state lawmakers has leveled off at 23 percent to 24 percent after continuous upticks since 1971, when it was 4.5 percent, center Director Debbie Walsh said.
She added the center’s research has found it’s not that women aren’t winning elections, it’s that there are fewer running in the first place.
State Sen. Althoff spoke toward the plateauing female count, saying women have more options now, such as higher-paying jobs in other fields or other government administrative roles rather than legislative ones.
“And number two, government’s gotten ugly,” Althoff said. “Public service is not perceived in the light it was many years ago.”
For those who are running, Walsh cited research that explains why they do so.
“Women are more likely to run if they’re recruited to run,” she said. “We’ve also found that women tend to run because they want to make a difference around a particular issue.”
The research circles around legislators, not necessarily women in local government. However, Low said those particular reasons ring true in regard to her initial quest for office, adding she was especially interested in the McHenry Riverwalk project upon running for the alderman position.
For 16-year Crystal Lake Councilwoman Cathy Ferguson, the first run stemmed from frustration about the council’s functionality. As far as being one of only two councilwomen, she said it doesn’t feel as if she’s part of a minority.
“I think it’s been a natural progression for women to want their voices heard, and this is just the facet in which I decided I wanted to make a difference,” she said. “But I feel like an equal part of the system.”
Walsh stressed the point is not that female members are a requirement for a board to operate well.
“It’s the concept of representational democracy, and those bodies should be reflective of the population,” she said.
In McHenry County, women 18 and older make up a hair more than 50 percent of the population, according to 2010 census data.
“Much of politics and public policy is drawn from personal experience and listening to different voices and constituents,” Walsh said. “Having a woman’s experience in the room could change the conversation and open up possibilities about different policies and priorities.”
The lone woman on the Lake in the Hills Village Board, Denise Barreto, said when she was first knocking on doors campaigning for the trustee spot, she kept an eye out for women who, at some point, might choose to follow her lead.
She poked at an idea similar to Walsh’s, saying it’s not about recruiting women for the sake of leveling a political playing field, but rather diversifying the perspective of community leaders.
“I feel very strongly that we need more women involved,” she said. “I do a lot of networking, and I think there are more women, but ... politics is still very male-driven, and that’s still true in McHenry County.”