Margaret Farrow grew up watching the Kenosha Comets, an all-women professional baseball team during World War II that helped ingrain in her the idea that women can do anything.
Then in her sixth-grade civics class, she learned about the suffragettes and how Wisconsin became the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment on June 10, 1919. The lesson “flipped the switch” for the future legislator and first female lieutenant governor in state history.
“In that civics class, finding out that Wisconsin had been so unique and had been first to ratify, it just kind of lit the light,” Farrow said.
Like many of Wisconsin’s current female lawmakers, Farrow said she was able to succeed as a woman in politics largely because of the women who came before her.
Wisconsin’s first female U.S. representative and U.S. senator, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, said she is careful not to forget how long women fought for the right to vote before it was made law.
“We stand on the shoulders of our foremothers,” Baldwin said.
The state’s first Latina lawmaker, Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, D-Milwaukee, said it gives her goosebumps thinking about the suffragettes and Wisconsin’s lead role in ratifying the amendment. Zamarripa first became interested in running for government because she wanted to increase voter participation.
“The vote and civic engagement is the catalyst for me to be in this work and this life right now,” Zamarripa said. “So when I think of this 100-year anniversary, I feel very much in awe and grateful to the women who led this fight way before me. I just hope that I can make them proud.”
Mixed with the gratitude for those trailblazing women is also a frustration with the persistence of gender inequality today. Wisconsin may have been the first to ratify the 19th Amendment, but it lags other modern democracies in the proportion of women elected to public office.
“Whether it’s for the opportunities for women in business or academia or politics, or the compensation women receive for the work they do, there are many areas … where full equality and full equity have yet to be achieved,” Baldwin said.
And while women were united in support of the right to vote 100 years ago, divisions within the women’s movement have persisted along political lines, notably over abortion rights.
More work to do
Aili Tripp, chairwoman of the UW-Madison Department of Gender and Women’s Studies, said the United States is “very far behind” most developed countries when it comes to women’s rights.
“Any area that you look, you’re going to see that we have a long, long way to go,” Tripp said.
As of February 2019, 75 countries had a higher percentage of women in their national legislatures than the U.S., according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
That’s even with the gains made in the last election, which resulted in the highest percentage of women in Congress to date, Tripp noted. Women currently make up only 24% of the House of Representatives and 25% of the Senate, according to Pew Research.
Tripp also pointed out that the U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t have paid maternity leave, has the highest rate of maternal death in the developed world, and doesn’t provide enough support for women who need access to affordable child care.
In Wisconsin, Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said women’s access to reproductive health care is a major problem she wants to see changed. Over the past eight years, Taylor said, the state has limited access to abortion and birth control, resulting in five rural Planned Parenthood centers closing.
Zamarripa said one of the main issues she is concerned about is ensuring equal pay between men and women. And while women make 78 cents for each dollar men make, Zamarripa said, Latino women make only 58 cents.
Zamarripa said more emphasis needs to be put on fighting for female minorities since they are more vulnerable.
She said Democratic women have introduced pay equity proposals in the past, but the legislation has not received bipartisan support.
Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, also has experienced frustration with bills to support women not getting enough support.
When Sargent proposed a bill to make tampons and menstrual products free in government and public restrooms, she said people called her “hysterical” for thinking such an issue was important. Others told her to focus instead on policies that “really matter.”
“I had someone say to me, ‘Can’t you just hold it until you get home and take care of it then?’” Sargent said.
Sargent said any woman would say that feminine products are a necessity, and periods can come up unexpectedly. Toilet paper, paper towels and soap are provided in public restrooms, so tampons should be too, she said. Sargent sees helping women manage this “normal and healthy bodily function” as a public health priority.
“No one should have to miss work or school … or risk their own health or compromise their dignity because they’re menstruating,” Sargent said.
Sargent said the fact that she has received so much push-back for fighting for menstrual products is an indicator that society is still “off balance” when it comes to gender equality.
Empowering conservative women
As women press for gender equality and lift each other up through the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, some conservative women say they have felt alienated.
Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican pollster and columnist who recently spoke at a Wisconsin Women in Government gala, said the concerns of young liberal women often overshadow those of young conservative women.
“Oftentimes Republican women’s voices are not really counted when women’s voices are being celebrated,” Soltis Anderson said.
Former Republican Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch said conservative women wouldn’t want to participate in a women’s movement that champions abortion rights.
Some young conservative women have told Rep. Jessie Rodriguez, R-Oak Creek, they feel “shunned” as soon as other women find out they oppose abortion rights. She said they feel “pushed out” of women’s empowerment.
“I think a lot of women on the conservative side feel like they can’t be a part of that movement,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said there is a common perception that women’s issues only encompass liberal women’s policies, but for her, there are other ways to uplift and empower women.
For example, Rodriguez wants to encourage more women to go into politics. When she was considering running for office, she said, a man sat down with her and tried to dissuade her. Rodriguez said women in office should share their experiences so that young women understand they are “just as capable as any man.”
But in terms of policy, Rodriguez said there often aren’t stark dividing lines between men’s and women’s issues. She said many conservative women who come to talk with her at her office or during listening sessions are passionate about issues that impact everyone, such as taxes and quality education.
“Women are interested in everything men are interested in,” Rodriguez said.
Defining ‘women’s issues’
While many policy proposals do primarily concern women, Baldwin also said other issues seen as pertaining only to women are universal.
Baldwin said many men, like her, are passionate advocates for pay equity. Men have talked with her about how their wives don’t get paid what they’re worth and the impact that has on their families.
“Women are half the state, half the country, half the world,” Baldwin said. “I think it’s important to be able to identify the inequities and inequalities that exist … but to understand that addressing that and rectifying those is in everyone’s interest.”
One sticking point among both conservative and liberal women has been the importance of policies supporting the family.
Rep. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, said she thinks policies to help families — such as suicide prevention, foster care support and mental health initiatives — are the “nexus” of women’s issues.
Baldwin said women still take on a greater share of the responsibility for child-rearing, which leaves them behind in terms of equal opportunities because the work world is not designed for that. She said the shortage of child care, especially in the western part of Wisconsin, needs to be addressed.
When it comes to issues that impact the family and children, Rodriguez said she has been able to work with women across the aisle, including Taylor. In a bill Rodriguez wrote about child placement, Taylor was the first to sign on as a co-sponsor.
One thing all of the women agreed on was the need for more female representation in state and national legislatures.
As she works to find solutions to problems facing women today, Sargent hopes her efforts will resonate with women in the future, just as the suffragettes have with her.
“I am really thankful for, and quite frankly I can’t even imagine, the mountains that those women had to climb in order to allow me to be here today,” Sargent said. “But I very much also realize that I am doing work now that will afford women and girls in the future to be able to march forward.”
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