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July 15, 2024 8:27 am

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Women Lawmakers Discuss Serving in Wisconsin’s Legislature

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by Baylor Spears, Wisconsin Examiner

There are 41 women serving in Wisconsin’s state legislature this session, making up 31% of the 132-member body. That’s a tie with last session for the largest group of women to serve in the Legislature in state history, though the record could be broken in April depending on the outcome of a special election in the 8th Senate district. Across the country, a record number of women were elected to state legislatures in 2022.

On recruiting women and running for office

Five of the lawmakers — Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D-Madison), Sen. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan), Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee),  Assembly Minority Leader Greta Nuebauer (D-Racine), Rep. Jessie Rodriguez (R-Oak Creek) and Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) — spoke with the Examiner about their experiences serving, thoughts on what it means to be a woman legislator and how they plan to affect change in the coming session.

Several of Wisconsin’s women lawmakers talked about overcoming both internal and external barriers to run for office the first time. Neubauer remembered being cautious about how she dressed because she was concerned about being taken seriously when she first ran for office in her mid-20s. Ballweg spoke about how essential the support of her husband in taking care of their children was and Rodriguez recalled an unexpected lunch with a potential supporter. 

“What I thought was going to be a friendly lunch meeting with him, turned out to be a not so friendly meeting,” Rodriguez said. “He said to me, ‘You’re a mom. You have a young child… What do you know about the issues of concern to the people in our community? Maybe you should not run for office.’ And I remember being stunned by his comments.” 

Now one of the longest serving Republican women in the Assembly, Rodriguez first ran for the Assembly in 2012. While it took a couple of asks before she decided to “give it a shot,” Rodriguez said that after her predecessor retired, she thought the district could benefit from being represented by a mom.  

Rodriguez said she told the dubious donor that she would be running for office and letting the people decide whether she was the right person for the job. Later that day, she said former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch — who had started acting as a mentor to her — provided reassurance. 

“I was pretty livid,” Rodriguez said. “But she was very helpful in trying to get me to focus on the race and not really think about what had just happened to me. I think that was very helpful. I just needed another lady to confirm with me that I’m not the only one who had that experience.” 

“When we see more women run for office, we see more women elected, so we know that in the vast majority of situations in the United States, when women run for office, they win at the same rate as do men,” says Kathleen Dolan, a professor of political science at UW-Milwaukee. “Women don’t have a harder time being elected to office in most circumstances. The issue is that they run for office less often than men do.” 

While there are many reasons more men than women decide to run for office, Dolan says one of the most significant differences is that women need to be encouraged to run for office by someone else, while men are more eager to step up without outside encouragement. 

Minority Leader Melissa Agard, who took over the leadership position from retired Sen. Janet Bewley, helps recruit candidates. She says conversations with potential male candidates tend to focus on the “nuts and bolts” considerations like the time commitment and pay. Conversations with potential women candidates take on a different tone. 

“Particularly when you talk to women, they are thinking about a lot of the vitriol that public officials are getting right now. They’re thinking about the impacts on their family. They’re thinking about the toll on themselves — Am I going to lose myself in doing this?” Agard says.  Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard conversations with potential male candidates tend to focus on the “nuts and bolts” considerations like the time commitment and pay. Photo by Baylor Spears.

Differences in women’s representation by party

Despite maintaining the largest number of women to ever serve in state history, women continue to be underrepresented in Wisconsin’s Legislature, and a stark contrast exists between the number of Republican and Democratic women lawmakers in Wisconsin. 

Assembly Democrats are 57% women, while only 20% of the Assembly Republicans are women. In the Senate, 14% of Republicans are women, while 45% of Democrats are women. 

Dolan says Wisconsin’s imbalances mirror nationwide trends between the parties: “The differences that you see in the Wisconsin State Legislature and the number of women who are Democrats versus Republicans is true everywhere in the United States. And that is partly because the Democratic Party is more egalitarian on gender issues. They are much more open to women candidates. They are much more active in seeking women candidates.”

The differences are represented in party leadership as well. Two of Senate Democrats’ top leaders are women: Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D-Madison) and Sen. Dianne Hesselbein (D-Middleton), who serves as minority caucus vice-chair. Sen. Joan Ballweg (R – Markesan), who serves as majority caucus vice-chair, is the only woman in Senate Republican caucus leadership. 

Ballweg says leadership makeup tends to come down to who decides to run. 

“When it comes to the leadership positions, it is a self selected type of thing just because you run doesn’t mean you get it, but hopefully people run because they feel that they can provide some direction or assistance in the organization moving forward,” Ballweg says.

While women hold two of seven positions in Republican Assembly leadership, the Assembly Democratic caucus leadership is made up almost exclusively of women, with Minority Leader Greta Neubauer (R-Racine) as the top leader. 

Neubauer says prioritizing women’s voices “starts from a place of recognizing that all of us come to the Legislature with different backgrounds and experiences and needs, whether we are newly elected to office or young or part of the LGBT community or a person of color or woman or an immigrant or have just a different professional background.” 

She adds that it’s important to her to listen and communicate with everyone in her caucus about their priorities, including on issues that affect mostly women including abortion restrictions in Wisconsin and accessibility of child care. 

What women’s voices means for representation this session

Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison), who is a mother and Wisconsin’s first Asian American woman to serve in the Legislature, says women in the Legislature are compassionate, hard-working and focused.

“Women are spectacular multitaskers, who also are much better at listening to understand than our male counterparts,” Hong said. “We’re also in a time right now where we are mobilizing around our collective struggle, fight and freedom, regardless of even political ideology. Most women in our state — outside of the fringe — truly want women to be successful and have those freedoms to be able to take care of themselves and their families, and who better to represent that than themselves.”

Hong says women are often good at acknowledging the power that vulnerability can have in negotiation and collaboration — two things that the Wisconsin Legislature needs more of. 

Deciding what to do with Wisconsin’s record-high $6 billion budget surplus in the coming month will require those skills. Gov. Tony Evers and the Republican-led Legislature will need to come to an agreement on how the money is spent. Evers will create his own budget, and then the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee will work out its own version to send back to Evers for signing. 

Agard recently appointed Sen. LaTonya Johnson and Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) to the JFC. In her announcement, she said she was “proud to appoint two badass moms.” She said the Senators’ voices will help elevate conversations by ensuring there are people on the committee who represent those in Wisconsin who are often making household decisions. 

“If you look at how families operate in Wisconsin, who’s doing the grocery shopping, who’s taking people to the doctor’s office, who’s taking care of their aging parents, who’s taking care of the kids, the chores at home, those responsibilities are falling primarily on the shoulders of women,” Agard says. “We have a large surplus in the state of Wisconsin. We have an important budget that we’re going to be putting together right away this legislative session, and to me, they know firsthand the challenges of ordinary people of the state of Wisconsin and they’re going to be a voice for them and a champion for them at that table.”  Sen. LaTonya Johnson will serve on the Joint Finance Committee for a second term. Photo by Baylor Spears/Wisconsin Examiner.

This will be Johnson’s third term on the committee. Recalling when she argued with Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) about a lack of funding for Milwaukee’s Black Holocaust Museum, Johnson said the last budget cycle highlighted a lot of frustrations for her when it comes to not being able to accomplish more for her community.

“It wasn’t just no to that museum,” Johnson says. “It was no to every single thing that would have helped with addressing disparities, or issues affecting our Black and brown communities.” 

Based on her experience last session, Johnson says she doesn’t go into JFC with high expectations because Republicans don’t often consult with Democrats when writing the budget. 

Johnson, who has one daughter, says being a mother is at the forefront of everything she does. She plans to use her position on the committee this session to advocate for more resources dedicated to addressing infant mortality, insufficient education funding and mental health problems.

“The best hope, as a Democrat, I can have for JFC is to be there and to voice those opinions and those issues to bring them to the forefront and even if everything is pulled out of the budget, to bring up those issues that are important to communities, like mine, and to not allow a budget to go through without highlighting those issues and the fact that they’re not doing anything or enough about it,” Johnson says. 

Rodriguez, who served on JFC last session, will be the only woman from the Assembly on that committee this session. She says her focus — similar to that of other Republican leaders — will be on cutting taxes for Wisconsinites. 

Rodriguez says her support for tax cuts comes from being on the campaign trail and hearing Wisconsinites express concern over inflation and other financial issues.

“In the last budget, we were able to pass a budget that provided over $3 billion dollars in tax relief. We want to do the same thing. We have an over $6 billion surplus,” Rodriguez says. “Why not give it to the people. I mean, this is the people’s money. This is their money that they gave to the government. We’d like to see a way to be able to help people in a time that’s been difficult for them.” 

Several Republican leaders have said they’re interested in pursuing a flat tax this session. Rodriguez said during a December interview that this was something that she is interested in researching. 

“In just the little bit of information that I do know about it, I’m interested in seeing if that would be a great solution for the people of Wisconsin,” Rodriguez said. 

Gendered comments, online threats and other difficulties

Recent incidents — like the break-in at the home of U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi by an intruder who wanted to harm her, and who instead attacked Pelosi’s husband, seriously injuring him with a hammer — have put a spotlight on the threats and harassment experienced by women who run for or serve in elected office. 

Neubauer, who recruited and campaigned for Democratic candidates in the recent election cycle, says she noticed real challenges for women candidates, who received threats. 

“I have seen that play a big role in women deciding to run for the Legislature or deciding not to run for the Legislature,” Neubauer said. “Unfortunately, in the last election cycle, we did have multiple candidates and volunteers experience threats, and in my experience, those people were women who were threatened online and over the phone and other forms.”

Multiple Wisconsin lawmakers discussed how online threats and harassment not only exist, but are growing.

Agard said anonymous online trolls are emboldened to say things that they wouldn’t typically say if they were standing in front of her because they can hide behind false personas. She said one individual tweeted out her home address after she filed a bill addressing gun issues.

“Some days, it affects me more, and other days I’m able to try and find humor,” Agard says. “There’s the days where you either laugh or you’re gonna cry, but also knowing when you really need to engage other people in it to solve the problem for you.”

Hong, who says she has dealt with online harassment, adds that she’s also heard from other lawmakers who received threats because of certain votes they’ve taken or comments they’ve made in the press. She says she thinks part of the growth is due to growing divisiveness and loudness from fringe groups. 

It’s important to have strong support systems and relationships with colleagues, says Hong, in order to have productive, nuanced conversations about addressing the problem.

“I’ve heard from colleagues, especially who are in redder districts, dealing with online threats during campaigning and feeling fear, and no woman, no elected, should have to endure that,” Hong says. “It’s important that men play a role in speaking out, acknowledging that this is happening in their community and it’s something that they should be addressing and not constantly women having to say, ‘Pay attention to this.’” 

Women lawmakers also addressed some of the gender dynamics and comments they’ve heard  within the Legislature. Within the first six months of her first term, Hong says she was “ridiculed” for being an Asian woman during one of her first meetings with a state senator. 

“He assumed I had a husband because I had a child. He said, ‘How did your husband manage to get a nice little Korean girl like you?’” Hong says. “These are comments that a lot of I think men — particularly older, cis, white men who have been in a position of power — don’t fear retaliation or a need to be held accountable.”

Hong says whether women are heard or not can depend on the makeup of a room. 

For example, Hong says she thinks women are often more cognizant of how much room people are taking up in a space, and has never felt disrespected during caucus meetings. She says that’s not always the case in committee rooms, especially those led by men in positions of power.

“There are absolutely times where I am hesitant to speak up because there’s always a little like, there’s this lingering fear that you will be perceived as emotional or aggressive, especially if you’re a woman of color,” Hong says.

Hong adds she isn’t sure that feeling will ever go away completely, but as more women run for office and she is surrounded by more women, she thinks the fear will dissipate increasingly. She plans to work on being sharper with her strategy this session, she says, and wants to feel less like she’s proving herself.

This story was written by Baylor Spears, a reporter at the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.

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