Wisconsin Groups Seek to Close the Gender Gap in Politics

In Wisconsin, just 25.8% of state lawmakers are women, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

However, when women run for public office, they win in the same percentages as men. So, why are there so few women in positions of political power?

Well, it turns out that not that many actually run for office in the first place. But, there two groups in Wisconsin trying to change that - Emerge Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Federation of Republican Women.

Chantia Lewis lives in Milwaukee’s ninth district. She’s a mom. A wife. A veteran of the United States Air Force. Now, she’s also a city alderwoman.

Lewis says she never intended to run for public office, but she did have a lot of thoughts about what was going on in her neighborhood.

"I just kept saying hey, hey, look over here! Anybody noticing this? Anybody noticing that?," she says. "And apparently a few people got tired of me saying did anybody notice, and they said apparently you’re the person who’s supposed to run, because you’re the one noticing all of these things.”

But Lewis already had a full plate, and, like many women, she felt guilty about considering a run for public office. She worried about leaving her husband with too much responsibility at home. She worried about her children. She worried about the non-profit organization at which she was the executive director. She worried.

And for a long time, she didn't act on her her urge to make a difference on a larger scale. 

Erin Forrest is the Executive Director of Emerge Wisconsin, an organization dedicated to recruiting a training women who are democrats to run for public office. She says it's not uncommon for women to choose non-profit work as a way through which to channel their desire to make a difference in their communities.

They don't even picture themselves on town boards or common councils or in the state legislature or in congress. Forrest says that is one of the biggest reasons far fewer women than men run for office. Forrest says many women who are in every way as qualified as men to hold elected office, from their education to their experience, don't see themselves as qualified.

"Almost all women, when you ask them to run, and we have to be asked because we’re much less likely to self-select, just say no immediately, and think there has got to be someone more qualified to do this. 'I don’t have the expertise. I don’t know every single thing that’s happened on my city council. There’s got to be someone better to do this job.' And so what we do in this training is just as much about dispelling that myth as it is about giving women new skills," she says.

And the training appears to be effective. In last week’s elections, 26 out of the 29 candidates associated with Emerge in Wisconsin won. Including Lewis. 

But democrats aren’t the only ones interested in finding and training women to run for public office. Charlotte Rasmussen is the president of the Wisconsin Federation of Republican Women. She says her organization is always scouting for strong potential women candidates.

Rasmussen says the goal is political parity, and we're not even close. "There’s not that great a representation in the state legislature, or the national legislatures, and even school boards and county boards, and so we should continue to look for candidates, continue to identify them, and then also, take them under our wing and teach them how to be a candidate," she says.

The Federation does candidate training every other year. Emerge does training every year.

Incoming Alderwoman Lewis says she emerged from her seven months of intensive training knowing she was qualified to run, and understanding how to do things like raise money and campaign.

The former PTA president beat her opponent – a 12 year incumbent – by eight points. She says any woman with passion, ideas, and commitment to her community – no matter what her background – can run and win. Lewis says, "I am a prime example, so if you can see yourself doing it in your dreams and visions and all of that, guess what. You can do it. So don’t doubt yourself. Do it."

But there's still a long way to go. When Lewis takes her seat on the fifteen member Milwaukee Common Council, she will increase the number of women on the board by 100%, to two. 

 Listen to the story here.


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