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State of the State: The next generation of women leaders could build on existing rights

Bethany Jaeger
WUIS/Illinois Issues
Women in the 1960s wanted a voice, the freedom to stand up to men. In the mid-'70s, they crusaded for equity, the right to be treated the same as men.

Regardless of the candidate, I'm sick of the buzz about whether America is ready for a female president. Maybe voters don't think a woman can win, or maybe women voters in particular take special coercing to be won over by a female candidate.

But there are women leaders all over the world. Finland, Ireland, India, Sri Lanka, Chile, East Germany and the Philippines, to name a few countries, have already had female presidents or heads of state, according to the International Women's Democracy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based group for women in government.

U.S. women have already shown the ability to lead, with room to grow. Congress has 74 female lawmakers, up by three from the previous Congress. Three of them represent Illinois. In state government, 49 women make up about 27 percent of the legislature. They have a voice in state executive decisions, too. That's in addition to those who run advocacy groups and the growing number of women in the Statehouse Press Corps (there's now 11, up from four 30 years ago).

Things started to change about 45 years ago. Dawn Clark Netsch, then Dawn Clark, was first in her Northwestern University law class and worked her way through state government to become the first female legal adviser to Gov. Otto Kerner in 1961.

Paula Wolff joined state government eight years later when she worked in the budget office of then-Gov. Richard Ogilvie. "There were two friends of mine that I recruited to come with me — we were the three women," she says. "Our salaries were quite different from those of the men. Arguably some of the men had had more experience, but I think we didn't even see that as an issue at the time. We were just happy to be hired, to be included in the discussions about making decisions and to be respected for our ideas and our skills."

Women in the 1960s wanted a voice, the freedom to stand up to men. In the mid-'70s, they crusaded for equity, the right to be treated the same as men. Now they want both. But there's more. Working women — leaders and support staffers alike — want the ability to live a balanced life, kids or no kids. But above all, women continue to want respect for their smarts and their competence.

Equity isn't enough, says Margaret Blackshere, the first woman president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, who retired this year. "When we get equality, it only lasts as long as you keep pushing and shoving. We shouldn't all have to do that."

Before she traveled the world advocating for labor, the former kindergarten teacher belonged to her local union and had male mentors because there were no women leaders, she says. She remembers taking her children to every meeting because she accepted caretaking as her responsibility.

Women used to think they had to be Super Woman, she says. But the next generation, including her sons, tends to share more family duties. Yet, she says, it's still a problem when women who take maternity leave are no longer valued by their employers. In other words, women have overcome barriers only to find new barriers.

Once women rise to leadership positions, they still have the challenge of balancing work and family life, but they're in a position to shape policies that could help others strike that balance.

Unfortunately for women in state government, Wolff warns that the addictive nature of policymaking has potential to distract from the instinct to nurture a family or a relationship.

Currently, just under half of the state's public employees, about 25,300 of them, are female, according to the governor's Central Management Services. 

Since former state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka ran for governor, Illinois lost one female executive officer and has only Attorney General Lisa Madigan. She's among the Top 10 of The National Law Journal's "40 under 40" lawyers. 

Gov. Rod Blagojevich appointed a female budget director, Ginger Ostro, and two female deputy governors, Sheila Nix and Louanner Peters.

Nix has three children, ages 6 to 13, and says she constantly feels rushed between her 24-7 job and her well-scheduled family life. But she says working for a governor who has two young children is a plus, and she wouldn't do the job if she didn't feel satisfied by the opportunity to use her brain power.

"If you're not challenged and interested by your job, then it's not worth doing all the work it requires to balance," she says.

Females have struck a balance in previous administrations, too. Two female deputy governors and a general counsel aided Gov. George Ryan. A woman led Gov. Jim Edgar's budget office and another his government operations. And at least a handful of females have led administration departments since the '70s.

Today, however, women head only four of the 26 state agencies. The most recent addition is Catherine Shannon, director of the Illinois Department of Labor. She came to the agency as the governor's former policy adviser on labor, having previously lobbied for two of the largest political action committees in the state: the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Illinois AFL-CIO. She learned from Blackshere in a typically male arena.

"When I first started with the AFL-CIO, I was a young woman working with a lot of predominantly middle-aged men in the building trades unions," she says. "I would have expected them to question or challenge my giving them lobbying instructions, but they would actually listen to me and respect my opinions on legislative matters."

It helped that she had expertise in the intimidating topic, and it definitely didn't hurt that she gained the knowledge while working for House Speaker Michael Madigan. "The expectations at the speaker's office were very high." 

She has since gained a family with two kids, ages 7 and 9, and a husband who shares in the department of laundry and errands.

Now that she directs her own state department, Shannon watches for issues that could help other mothers strike the balance. One piece of legislation on her watch list would require businesses of all sizes to offer employees, unionized or not, up to a month of paid leave if the worker gets sick or has to care for a sick family member. The leave would be paid for by employee and employer contributions. Lawmakers are expected to reconsider the measure, which stalled last year.

Other health care measures rank high on Shannon's watch list. "People may stay in positions because of benefits because [the cost of] health care is so astronomical," she says. "And sometimes people might stay in jobs that aren't as challenging or maybe are too challenging because they need the health insurance."

Expanding access to health care for children and adults is a prominent item on the governor's agenda, says Abby Ottenhoff, who's responsible for getting the governor's message out.

She's unmarried and without children but being on constant call requires plenty of sacrifices, something she weighed before accepting the position. "I wanted to make sure that what the governor and his administration would be doing would be worth that sacrifice. And to me, it certainly has been."

She accepts getting a few media phone calls every weekend as a part of life. "It really doesn't bother me. It may bother other people in my life more than it bothers me."

Women are working their way into the judicial system, too, but at a slower pace. In addition to two female Illinois Supreme Court judges — Justices Anne Burke and Rita Garman — more than a dozen other women are Illinois appellate court judges.

A behind-the-scenes leader is Cynthia Cobbs, the first female and the first African American to manage the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts. She oversees 125 employees, develops the nearly $285 million budget and helps administer the Supreme Court's rules throughout the justice system, among other responsibilities.

Cobbs started out as a clinical social worker to help abused or neglected children. She says she earned a law degree in hopes of combining the clinical and legal approaches to the problem.

Her male mentor, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Charles Freeman, gave her confidence and a judicial nod to her current position. She has to pinch herself to realize she's not dreaming.

"To actually be in a position where you are able to relate to the justices of the Supreme Court on a myriad of issues, and to impact policy administratively on many issues, and to be invited by the court to offer advice and consultation is something that I think most attorneys don't dream of."

But women do dare to dream. Cobbs says she sees progress, particularly for minority women who work in fields they wouldn't have 10 years ago — law, medicine and corporate America.

"I think that we are recognized for the great skills we bring, the competence of our management style," she says. "While I don't think that women have absolutely, totally arrived, that we have balanced the scales entirely on the male counterpart, I think that we've made significant inroads and that we have a very clear presence in many fields."

Wanting job flexibility to balance family life doesn't mean women want special treatment, Blackshere says. "I absolutely refuse to accept that. You go to Europe and you see how they think of the family medical leave, and time off, and it can go to either parent so time is spent equally."

Working women still don't want special treatment. Just like men, they want a balanced personal life. But without respect, the effort isn't worth it.

It's because of previous women leaders that the next generation has a righteousness to want it all: a voice, equity, balance and respect. The wish list could continue to grow, but embracing women in leadership is the best way to realize the possibilities. 


Bethany Carson can be reached at capitolbureau@aol.com.

Illinois Issues, March 2007

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