Tom Kacich: Illinois GOP admits it needs more women

In Illinois, the Republican Party used to be the party of the woman.

Today, not so much.

One hundred years ago, when the Illinois Legislature led much of the nation in giving women limited voting rights — they could vote only for offices such as mayor or alderman that were not mentioned in the state Constitution — it was Republicans who provided the votes. In the House, Republicans voted for what was called the Presidential and Municipal Suffrage Bill, 32-14. For the most part, Democrats voted it down, 24-44. Members of the Progressive Party also provided 24 votes.

Further, the first woman voted onto the University of Illinois Board of Trustees, Lucy Flower, was a Republican.

The first woman elected to the Illinois House, in 1922, Lottie Holman O'Neill, was a Republican.

Two years later, Florence Fifer Bohrer, a Republican, was the first woman elected to the Illinois Senate. Bohrer, of Bloomington, was the daughter of a former Illinois governor.

The first three women elected to Congress from Illinois — Winnifred Mason Huck of Chicago, Ruth Hanna McCormick of Byron and Jessie Sumner of Milford — were Republicans. All were elected before 1940. The first female Democrat from Illinois to go to Congress was Emily Taft Douglas in 1945.

Somewhere, somehow the Illinois Republican Party forgot women. Not entirely, of course, but today it's the Democratic Party that has the majority of female officeholders.

Of Illinois' 18-member congressional delegation, four are women, and all are Democrats — Jan Schakowsky, Robin Kelly, Cheri Bustos and Tammy Duckworth.

In the Illinois Senate, 15 of the 59 senators are women, and 11 of the women are Democrats. (On the other hand, there are only 19 Republicans in the entire Senate).

In the Illinois House, there are 40 women out of 118 members, and 30 of the women are Democrats.

The upcoming election ballot isn't impressive either: There are 27 Republicans running for congressional seats in Illinois, and 22 are men.

In the 20 upcoming Illinois Senate races, there 12 Republican candidates, and three are women.

In the upcoming Illinois House races, male Republican contenders outnumber females by about 3-to-1.

No one I talked with could explain what happened to the Illinois Republican Party and its relationship with women, although Roger Biles, a professor of history at Illinois State University and an author, offered a reasonable explanation.

"My general thought is that that's indicative of what has happened to the Republican Party overall. If you look at the Republican Party in the early part of the 20th century it was leading the way on environmentalism, and that's gone 180 degrees. In the first few decades of the 20th century, the Republicans were every bit as progressive, if not more so, than the Democrats on a lot of issues," Biles said. "I think it's all about the fundamental shift of the Democratic Party in the 1930s because of (Franklin) Roosevelt and the New Deal. The Republican Party just headed in the other direction."

Pat Brady, who stepped down as state Republican Party chairman in May, didn't deny that the party has had trouble attracting female candidates — and female voters.

"I don't think in my lifetime the party has ever said women are a bad thing for us. Obviously we have had (former State Comptroller) Loleta Dickrickson and (State Comptroller) Judy Baar Topinka and other women. But it is a problem. I would acknowledge that we do need more women. We do have some coming up, women for the House and Senate, but not enough," Brady said. "The founder of our party is Abraham Lincoln. There is no bigger figure of someone who stood for doing the right thing and for equality and freedom than Abraham Lincoln. That's why a lot of people like me were attracted to this party, because that's what we believe in.

"From abolition to the suffrage movement to a lot of other reforms, including civil rights in the '60s, Republicans led the way on a lot of these issues and I think we need to get back to that in the context of a conservative fiscal message. And then you attract more women, more voters."

On the other hand, he said, "some of the issues that some (Republican candidates) have been so strident about tend to turn off suburban women, where the big numbers of women voters are. That's one way to look at it."

He noted that three of the party's four candidates for lieutenant governor — chosen by the gubernatorial candidates, all male — are women.

"Bruce Rauner, Kirk Dillard and Bill Brady all have named women as their running mates, which is a step in the right direction. And I know that we've actively recruited women, but I can honestly say that it's something we need to do a much better job of," Brady said.

When he resigned as party chief, Brady said he was asked who should replace him.

"I said I thought it should be a woman, not that anybody really was going to listen to me, but I firmly believe we need more women," he said.

Erika Harold, the Urbana attorney and former Miss America who is challenging U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, in the 13th Congressional District Republican primary election, said she doesn't know where her party went wrong.

"I don't know why the party is having such a difficult time attracting women and promoting them to positions of leadership," she said. "It's something that the party has to take very seriously, though.

"In order for the party to become more competitive in elections, they have to be able to get a broad range of support. If women do not feel that the party reflects their interests or that the party is unwilling to include them in positions of leadership, that will hurt the party going forward."

Kristin Williamson, the Republican candidate for the Illinois House in the 103rd District that includes Champaign-Urbana, offered a more optimistic outlook.

"There's always been this theory out there that the Republican Party wasn't the place for women, but when first day I stepped into a Republican meeting in Champaign County I've always felt welcome," she said. "I absolutely agree that we need more women, especially at the state level. It's important that we have a balanced voice. And the issues that we're facing today — jobs and supporting families and making sure that education funding is in place for their children — the more women we have speaking to those issues, the more women in the community will see that the Republican Party is championing solutions for those issues."

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at tkacich@news-gazette.com.

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Sid Saltfork wrote on December 22, 2013 at 9:12 am

Nice article about gender, and the GOP.   What about minorities, same sex, age, and income levels?   Which GOP is being referred to in the article?  Is it the historical GOP, or the Tea Party?   At least with the number of members decreasing, and deceasing; the money is increasing.