Wisconsin voters have never elected a female governor. A woman has never represented six of the state’s eight congressional districts. Just one has been the state’s top lawyer.
Despite making up more than half of Wisconsin’s population, women represent fewer than a quarter of the state’s 132 legislative districts.
That dearth of female representation is especially pronounced in the Republican Party; its 12 female members make up just 9 percent of the state Legislature.
Moreover, no female Republican has ever been elected to the state’s federal delegation. By contrast, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Madison Democrat, served in the House for more than a decade before becoming the first woman elected senator from Wisconsin in 2012.
Why so few Republican women in office?
Female GOP lawmakers and experts who study the topic cite several reasons:
- It’s harder for Republican women to win increasingly partisan primary elections, in part because they are perceived as moderate and the GOP is moving to the right.
- Republicans generally reject identity politics, the idea that groups of voters deserve representation.
- A lack of aggressive recruitment efforts on the part of party leaders.
- Family obligations.
- A perception among some voters that women aren’t qualified.
“If you read anything about my primary, I wasn’t exactly recruited,” said Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.
She was not the state GOP establishment’s pick when she first ran in 2010, but party leaders have since embraced her.
She also didn’t dream up the idea on her own. Like most female Republican lawmakers interviewed for this story, she didn’t seriously consider running for office until family and friends, including former Lt. Gov. Margaret Farrow, encouraged it.
“Obviously if you are a stay-at-home mom and an independent business owner, when you look in the mirror, you don’t exactly see a statewide politician staring back at you,” Kleefisch said.
Nationally, 38 percent of all female state legislators are Republicans. Almost all of the rest — 61 percent — are Democrats.
One reason for that gap is the Republicans’ lack of an aggressive, nationally supported candidate recruitment group like Emerge Wisconsin is for Democrats.
Alec Zimmerman, spokesman for the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said statewide recruitment of Republican candidates is not a function of the state’s official political party.
“Republican candidate recruitment is done on the grassroots level from the ground up by local groups, not through a top-down approach,” he said.
Republicans also tend to eschew identity politics, making such a group less likely to gain traction, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
“There is something slightly antithetical to the whole idea of identity politics on the Republican side,” Walsh said. “It almost philosophically makes it more complicated for (women) to run.”
The experience of Rep. Joan Ballweg of Markesan illustrates the situation: “I never met the party leadership until I came down here.”
Ballweg was the only female candidate in a nine-way Republican primary in 2004 for the Assembly in her area. She advanced to the general election, and won it.
Walsh said female Republican candidates are now generally having more trouble replicating Ballweg’s success.
Regardless of their positions on issues, female candidates can be perceived by Republican primary voters as more moderate than their male counterparts, she said.
“As the Republican Party has shifted in the way as it has to the right in that period, we’ve seen the demise of Republican-elected women,” Walsh said. “There are just fewer and fewer of them.”
Since 1975, the number of Republican women in the Wisconsin Legislature peaked at 37 in 2004, or 28 percent, according to center data. And Republican women outnumbered Democrats from 1999 until 2006 — but have trailed since then.
A common theme among female Republican lawmakers is that they first thought about running for statewide office because of the encouragement of family members.
Ballweg had served two terms each on the Markesan City Council and as the city’s mayor while operating her family’s farm equipment business when her husband suggested she try to win the Assembly seat.
Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, ran for her first term in the Assembly after her brother Jim, a former lawmaker, encouraged her.
“Running for office was never on my radar,” said Harsdorf, a former dairy farmer. “At that point, I was milking cows and farming until noon and then the rest of the day I would go out and campaign.”
When Harsdorf was first sworn in as a member the state Assembly in 1989, there were a couple more female lawmakers in the state Legislature than there are today.
But in the Senate, where Harsdorf is now one of nine female senators (and one of three Republicans), there were only four women at the time.
“As someone who came from an (agriculture) field, I was used to being in a field dominated by males,” Harsdorf said. “So it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for me.”
Rep. Samantha Kerkman, R-Salem, said she was encouraged to run by her father, who served on the local town board. But even her grandfather said she probably couldn’t win.
“I think that was old-school thinking,” Kerkman said. “On election day, he was proud as he could be, and grinning from ear to ear.”
Kerkman, who was first elected in 2000, said the male-dominated Legislature treated her as a kind of fleeting novelty — not always a serious stateswoman.
“Early on they called me ‘prom queen.’ I was like, ‘I didn’t even go to prom,’ ” she said. “It was hard because people were like, what are you going to do once you have kids? I was like, ‘People in the business world do this all the time.’ ”
New GOP program
Kleefisch said until the last several years Republicans have not had “an aggressive operation” to recruit female candidates and then support and mentor them throughout their campaigns.
She helped create a national project through the Republican State Leadership Committee similar to Emerge America called Right Women Right Now.
“We have had six years of building infrastructure that perhaps really hadn’t occurred to the party fathers before. ... Under the circumstances, it’s kind of notable,” Kleefisch said. “We have ushered in a new era and it’s an era that’s supportive of wanting to represent 53 percent of the electorate.”
But on the state side, efforts to boost recruitment have waned.
“I’d love to see more recruitment,” Ballweg said. “We’ve tried to do that on the Republican side. ... It’s hard to generate some kind of initiative like that.”
Issues not at issue
Republican lawmakers said it’s not the issues and policies of the Republican Party that are resulting in fewer women being drawn to Republican politics, and they said none of the issues taken up by either house would change remarkably if more women were there.
“I wouldn’t say there is an issue I’m more interested in because I’m a female and not a male,” said Rep. Cindi Duchow, R-Delafield. “I can tell you the women don’t get treated any different than the men.”
Harsdorf said the appeal of running lay in bringing her knowledge of the dairy farming industry to making laws that affect her and other dairy farmers.
“There were decisions being made in Madison that affected me as a dairy farmer and were being made by people who probably didn’t have a lot of knowledge about the industry,” she said.
Family obligations, an unfair perception that men are more qualified to make laws and a sometimes hostile reception on social media can prevent women from entering politics in Wisconsin, according to interviews.
“I can tell you a lot of the women who are Democrats are from the Milwaukee and Madison area and I have to tell you if I was driving four hours for this job — I have to tell you — it’s tough. That’s a long commute,” Duchow said.
Where legislative candidates are recruited from also plays a role, Ballweg said. She said while women often hold county offices, county boards end up being more of a bench to draw legislative candidates from and those tend to be more male-dominated.
Social media has opened doors to easier communication between constituents and their representatives, but with it comes an avenue for toxic feedback, too, which can discourage women from running.
Kleefisch said that new environment once prevented her from recruiting two female friends to run for an open school board seat in Oconomowoc.
“They both recoiled in horror at the suggestion that they do anything in the political hemisphere because they see me,” she said. “They see the stuff people say and they see in some cases the gross and moronic remarks that people put out to be preserved for all of history and for my children to Google. So not every woman is willing to subject their family to that.”
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. A photo caption in the web version of this story misstated the number of members of the Wisconsin Legislature.]