State Rep. Monica Bristow discusses women in the legislature
For 13 years, Dan Beiser was the state representative for the 111th Legislative District, around the Alton riverbend. When he resigned in December of 2017, Monica Bristow took his place and raised the number of female legislators from St. Clair and Madison County to three.
Bristow, along with state Rep. LaToya Greenwood, D-East St. Louis, and state Rep. Katie Stuart, D-Edwardsville, will be joined by one more metro-east woman in the legislature when Rachelle Aud Crowe is sworn into the state senate.
From 2009 through the end of 2016, all of the legislators from the metro-east were men.
“I think women are more nurturing, we’re more prone to negotiating and I think we’ll see a different culture in the state House,” Bristow said.
In 2016, the gender makeup of metro-east state legislators began to balance out. Eddie Lee Jackson was succeeded by Greenwood. Stuart defeated Dwight Kay. Beiser was replaced by Bristow when he stepped down in 2017.
Seven of the 10 metro-east legislative seats in St. Clair and Madison counties are filled by Democrats. And when Crowe succeeds Haine in January, a majority of the metro-east Democratic legislators in Springfield will be women.
“I wouldn’t say it was intentional as in that only females were considered (in 2016) because I know that is not the case, but I think it’s a great result,” Stuart said.
“I think … we need to realize that women need a voice and minorities of all ilk, based on religion, race and everything else need to be appropriately represented everywhere — CEOs, government positions and teaching and everywhere else,” Stuart added.
The metro-east has elected women to the legislature in the past.
State Rep. Wyvetter Younge, a Democrat from East St. Louis preceded Jackson in the 114th District. She served from 1975 through 2008. Evelyn M. Bowles served in the state senate from 1994 to 2003 before being succeeded by Haine.
“It’s not new or unprecedented, just for some reason we had had mostly male legislators and now we have a majority female from the metro-east on the Democratic side,” said state Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea.
Hoffman said that’s more refection of their quality as candidates than their gender. But their personal perspective on issues like equal pay for equal work will influence the debate.
“I’m happy with the talent, whether they’re men or women, that all of these new legislators are going to bring to the table,” Hoffman said.
Women are set to make up 36 percent of the general assembly when the next class of legislators is sworn in. That is up from 35 percent in 2018.
“I’m very excited about women being included and having a seat at the table when it comes to issues that affect us, because we more times than not are the solvers. So we know how to solve problems,” Greenwood said. “This helps us have a greater platform on issues that affect all of us, not only in the metro-east, but all over the state of Illinois. Not just women’s issues, but issues in general.”
In the 100th General Assembly, which adjourned its 2018 session on Thursday, there are 15 women in the state senate and 47 women in the House.
When the next general assembly is sworn-in, there will be 20 women in the senate and 44 women in the House.
“I think we’re just starting. I’m very excited to be a part of this. When I’m at the new member training and I look around, there are a lot of females in the room,” Crowe said. “There’s an instant camaraderie and most of us are moms and we all know what we’ve been through, through this campaign season. I do think this is just the beginning.”
Illinois has been closer to gender balance than other states. In 2018 women made up 25.8 percent of state legislators in the United States, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In 2018, the Illinois legislature had the sixth highest percentage of women. Arizona and Vermont had the highest with each having 40 percent women, National Conference of State Legislatures data shows.
Even though Illinois had a higher percentage of women in its legislature, the capitol building was hit with its own Me Too sexual harassment scandals. Complaints led to state Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, resigning from his leadership position in the state House, and the ouster of Tim Mapes, the chief of staff of Speaker Mike Madigan. Lang was ultimately cleared of harassment allegations.
Whether having more women in the office helps prevent harassment is speculation, Crowe said.
“What prevents it is awareness, and maybe when you look around at who is leading that issue of awareness, those are females for the most part,” Crowe said.
The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University does ongoing research on women’s participation in American politics. The influence of women and minorities make a provable difference in state legislatures, said its director, Debbie Walsh.
“We know that it matters to have more women in office, to have more diversity in office,” she said. “People bring all of their life experiences to the table when they’re serving, and it shapes their priorities and it shapes how they’re going to lead.”
Walsh said women would have different outlooks on child care and health care.
“They might see the differential impact a policy might have on women or single moms or kids that their male colleagues might not see,” Walsh said. “It’s not that their male colleagues won’t be supportive, it’s just that they won’t see it. It might not occur to them.”
Ultimately the goal would be gender parity among elected officials, Walsh said.
“It’s still not 50 percent, which is where it should be,” Walsh said. “Women make up 51 percent of the population. It would be nice if women were 50 to 51 percent of the elected officials (and) if people of color were well-represented. Gay, straight, race, ethnicity, religion — all of that diversity enriches our democracy.”
Illinois has programs to encourage and train women to run for office. The Republican Party in Illinois offers the Lincoln Series, while the Democratic Party has the Illinois Women’s Institute for Leadership Training Academy. Loretta Durbin, wife of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, is a past president and founding board member of the later.
Putting more women into elected offices, however, has been an incremental change.
Illinois went from being ranked 16th in the country in 2010 to seventh in 2011 in percentage of women in the legislature. That happened when Illinois had a net gain of five women.
“It is a slow process of getting more women to run and having more women participate in the process,” Walsh said.
Nationally, 2018 produced a record number of female candidates for state legislative seats, Walsh said. She added the Democrats among them benefited by the support of Emily’s List, which raises money for women candidates. Republican women need something comparable, Walsh said.
The state GOP has run women candidates in the metro-east, but they were unsuccessful. Katherine Ruocco, in 2014, and Tanya Hildenbrand, in 2018, both ran for state senate seats in the 57th District, but ultimately lost in general elections. Ruocco also challenged Hoffman in the state House of Representatives in 2016.
In 2018 Wendy Erhart, of Maryville, had the support of the Illinois Republican Party when she campaigned in the 112th State House District. Erhart ultimately lost to Kay in the primary.
Walsh says continuing the trend toward more gender parity depends on more Republican women getting elected.
“We will never get to political parity if we’re only electing more Democratic women,” Walsh said. “I think the (Republican) party has to do more to recruit and support women to run for office ... The party has to make it a priority. They have to really value getting more Republican women in office and that means recruiting them, supporting them and grooming them. And it might mean stepping in some primaries and running women in winnable races and winnable districts.”