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To The Front: Karen Hasara, Springfield's First & Only Female Mayor

Terry Farmer

For decades, women have been battling to break through the “glass ceilings” in their chosen fields. To the Front is an NPR Illinois series where we talk with female and nonbinarypeople about the way their identity intersects with their art and work. 

Karen Hasara was 29 and a mother of four when she decided to go to college at Sangamon State University, now UIS. At first she thought she might become a school teacher. Her lifelong love of politics however had her volunteering for campaigns. It was through that work that she became a candidate for the Sangamon County Board in 1975. She won, and from there she served in both chambers of the state's General Assembly. Between 1975 and 1995, when she was elected Springfield's first female mayor, the number of women in the legislature grew from 14 to 41. There are now 63 women serving, according to Rutgers University.
Hasara has a unique perspective on gender and politics, having served at a variety of levels. In this interview she talks about how gender influenced her time in public office. Listen now:


HASARA: Growing up in Springfield, I always say that you usually either love politics or hated it because it's certainly a part of our lives here in Springfield, but I always loved it. But of course there were no female role models and I really never dreamed of having the opportunity to be directly involved in politics. I got to work on some campaigns and that really provided me the opportunity when people did decide maybe it wouldn't be so bad to have some women in government ... I was able then to take a place on the county board.

OTWELL: What was the immediate reaction to a female - you were the first female on the county board, is that right?

HASARA: Well, I was actually the second, but the first one was elected on a slate of officers ... under our old system, the county board members ran on a slate. So I was the first woman to run on my own. Actually, I always thought it was pretty positive. I was pleasantly surprised. I knew I had to really work hard and fit in with 28 men and I remember thinking after the first couple of meetings, I know I can do this and I actually fit in pretty well. And I really got to respect them and like them and learn a lot about them and of course was thrilled with my new role.

OTWELL: And so talk about the atmosphere at the time when you became a legislator, as far as how many among your peer group who were female and ... if you dealt with sexism at all.

HASARA: I can't say that personally I dealt with sexism. I'm sure that there were men that didn't want women in politics. I think what surprised me the most was that older men seemed to warm up to the idea that maybe it was time for women to be involved. That was a nice surprise for me. And I'm sure, as I say, that I didn't hear a lot ... going on behind the scenes. But I felt comfortable in the position. There were not very many women ... By the time I went to the Senate after seven years in the House, there were a lot more women beginning to get into politics. So that was in the early nineties. There's continued to be a gradual strengthening of the numbers of women, I believe.

OTWELL: Do you think there was anything you can point to that helped solidify that change?

HASARA: I think it was probably a general movement at the time. And if you look back, in the seventies, there was a lot being said and going on nationally and internationally trying to get more women involved, but it was hard. For one thing, more women were married then - we had more children than women do now. And so it was really a huge balancing act and you know, there was guilt that we had and the way ... our mothers raised us was not the way that we were going to be raising our children if we were going to be real involved in politics. And that of course brought us some trouble in our minds as to what kind of a mom we should be. So that, that was a very hard thing I think for a lot of women at the time.

OTWELL: And personally, how did you juggle that, or how did you reconcile those feelings?

HASARA: Well, I was lucky because I lived in Springfield. I lived in the capital city and I had a wonderful mother who was always supportive of me and helped me so much. When I came to Sangamon State (University) she said, 'I want you to go back to school and I'll help you as much as I can.' And she did a lot. So I always thought that if I had not lived here, I probably would not have been able to be in the legislature. But then as time went on, of course my children grew up and so it became easier and easier.

OTWELL: Did you have the sense at the time that you were a pioneer?

HASARA: Somewhat I did, it would be hard not to, you know, if you're the only woman on a board of 29. There had been one other clerk of the court, but the predecessor was a male and then there weren't very many women in the General Assembly, and (I was) the first woman Mayor. So it would've been hard not to have seen that. And I took the responsibility very seriously because a woman like me coming in at that time could really, really hurt other women trying to follow in our footsteps. And there were a couple of other women ... Maralee Lindley who a lot of Springfield people will remember, and we were a big help to each other.

OTWELL: It sounds like you had a greater sense of responsibility than just the task at hand.

HASARA: Definitely. I really did feel and you know, did everything I could, to help other women who wanted to be in politics. I've often had women come up to me, and I always say this about everyone, not just people in politics, but so often we touch people's lives and we have no idea that we have ... I've had women come up to me and say that they decided to run for office because of what I had told them at the time (about) how rewarding that it was to me.

OTWELL: So in a conversation that we had before, you talked about the differences in leadership you noticed between women and men and I was just wondering if you could speak to that again?

HASARA: It may have changed. You know, I've actually been out of office now for almost 15 years, so I hope it's changed a little bit in this regard, but women, we were more interested in the things that you would expect women to be interested in ... education, child support. I mean those, those issues definitely were at the top of more lists for women than they were for men. But I used to say there were two questions that a legislator would ask and the questions would be, 'If I do this particular thing or vote a certain way, will I be helping my career, and will I be helping my constituents?' I always felt from my experience that a man would ask, 'Am I helping my career' first, and a woman would probably say (first), 'Will this help my constituents?' I know that's a stretch and I probably make a lot of males mad about that, but that was just the impression. I'm not saying it was wrong, I'm just saying that was my impression of the difference between men and women, when I was in the legislature.

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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