The halls of power can be a lonely place for a woman.
After being elected the first woman and the first African American to the Milwaukee Common Council, Vel R. Phillips repeatedly introduced a bill aimed at outlawing housing discrimination in the city. It failed year after year, but that didn’t stop her.
Known as “Madam Alderman,” Phillips helped lead Milwaukee’s open housing marches in the late 1960s with Father James Groppi. They were frequently met by angry white residents who yelled and threw rocks and bottles at them.
Phillips went on to become a woman of even more firsts, including serving as the state’s first African American judge, the first female judge in Milwaukee County and the first African American elected to statewide office in Wisconsin.
“Vel came in and basically kicked the door in at the council,” Milwaukee Ald. Chantia Lewis said.
The Milwaukee Common Council now has three African American alderwomen — Lewis, Milele Coggs and Nikiya Dodd — more than at any other time in Milwaukee’s history. It’s never had more than four women on the Council at the same time.
In Milwaukee and throughout the state, women are still far from equal when it comes to representation in politics. One hundred years after Wisconsin became the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment, women in the state have come a long way — but clearly have a long way to go.
Women have never occupied the governor’s office or represented six of Wisconsin’s eight congressional districts.
Out of 132 state lawmakers representing the 5.8 million people in Wisconsin, just 27% are female.
Despite making up more than half of the state’s population, Wisconsin women hold elected offices in numbers that continue to lag behind the rest of the nation.
“I think it’s important that we continue to look at the past, just to keep in sight where we come from so that we don’t lose that,” Lewis said. “But then also looking ahead to the future, and really saying ‘Who are we prepping to have our place next? Who are we prepping to open the door for now? Who are we inspiring?’ “
She added, “One of my favorite adages is, ‘If you train a man you train a man, if you train a woman you train a village.’ “
On the northern wall of state Rep. Shelia Stubbs’ ground-floor office in the Wisconsin Capitol hangs framed pages of newspapers with her smiling face scattered across them.
Stubbs wasn’t trying to create a tribute to herself, but to begin the process of turning the statehouse into a place where people who look like her feel like they could belong.
“I walk these hallways — there are not people of color on the hallway walls,” Stubbs, a Democrat who represents parts of Madison, said. “I’ve created my own wall because there are no blacks on the walls of this Capitol.”
Stubbs is the first black state lawmaker to represent Dane County — elected in 2018 and living just a few miles from the historic building in which she now works as one of just seven female lawmakers of color.
“Not only am I an African American but I’m a woman,” she said. “I’m in those classifications, so I’m always trying to overcome some stereotype or some barrier.”
Since gaining the right to vote a century ago, women still are rarely elected.
Stubbs is one of just 36 female state lawmakers at the Capitol.
“This state is a very diverse state, but if you come in this space, you don’t see that,” Stubbs said.
Republicans control the state Legislature, but Republican women are especially scarce in the Capitol, with just two state senators and 10 Assembly members — making up less than 10% of the Legislature.
Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, a Republican who now heads the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission, said one reason fewer women than men run for office is because the idea of a campaign is “frequently daunting.”
Women are daughters, mothers, sisters, wives, counselors, chauffeurs, cooks and often work full time. Adding a political campaign to the mix can be difficult to take on, she said.
“Having your voice heard in government is the last thing on the to do list,” Kleefisch said. “Frequently when you see women get involved in politics, it’s because an event in their life has caused them to be involved.”
A number of other factors also contribute to fewer Republican women seeking elected offices, including more women identifying as Democrats than Republicans, a lack of recruitment efforts and a perception among some voters that women shouldn’t be running.
“It was horrible,” Kleefisch said of her 2010 primary race against male candidates, including the preferred candidate among Republicans. “It was me and five men. … I was not the choice of my own political party.”
Kleefisch said she was told “countless times” she should have known to start her political career by running for a less-prominent office.
“There were other times I would be handing out (campaign literature) only to have it pushed back into my hands having been told I should be at home with my children,” she said. “So I got it from all angles.”
But Kleefisch won and held the office for eight years until she and Republican Gov. Scott Walker lost their re-election bids in November to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.
Kleefisch is now being eyed as a potential candidate for governor. In the meantime, she is working on recognizing the ratification of the amendment that provides her the opportunity to even consider a run.
“You wouldn’t be able to ask me that question if we didn’t have the 19th Amendment,” Kleefisch said about whether she will run for governor. “I am concentrating on my current job, which is a monumental opportunity to talk to women and men countrywide about one of my very favorite constitutional amendments, and it is something over the next year that may be our one unifying moment as an electorate.”
But Stubbs said while she celebrates the amendment’s ratification, she wants to ensure the struggles among black women to secure their right to vote are not overlooked.
Leading up to the ratification of the 19th Amendment, black women seeking suffrage were often marginalized. Years later, black women living in some southern states were still unable to vote because of barriers that remained in place until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“As a black woman, these hard-fought victories for equity were not afforded to all women so when I think about the women’s suffrage, and I think about the 19th Amendment — that was great. That was a wonderful movement for women, but not for all women, and I think we cannot lose focus on that,” Stubbs said.
In the 100 years since Wisconsin ratified the 19th Amendment, things have been slow to change at the Capitol and around the state.
Suffrage leader Jessie Jack Hooper ran for a U.S. Senate seat in 1922 and lost. Theodora Youmans, a major player in Wisconsin’s suffrage movement, unsuccessfully campaigned for a spot in the state Senate.
Three women were elected to the state Assembly in 1924, but the state Senate didn’t seat its first woman until 1975.
Wisconsin is at a near record high for women in the state Legislature, but at 27% is slightly below the 2019 national average of 28.6%, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Among the states, Wisconsin ranked 29th.
A record number of women were recently elected to state legislatures nationwide, the center found. It also said that for the first time in history, one state has reached parity: Women in Nevada now hold 50.8% of the seats in that state’s legislature.
Erin Forrest, the executive director of Emerge Wisconsin, a group that trains Democratic women to run for office, said she has seen a surge of interest from liberal women who want to get involved in politics in recent years.
But Forrest said the overall numbers of women at the Capitol have not changed much, in part because of decreasing numbers of GOP women in office.
Democratic women across the country increased their overall numbers in state legislatures by 287 seats in the 2018 elections, while Republican women saw their numbers drop — losing 38 house seats and seven senate seats.
GOP leaders recently released a report in the wake of statewide losses in 2018 that concluded the party and statewide campaigns fell short with women by including very few in their campaigns.
Forrest said she believes Democratic women in Wisconsin would have gained more seats if it weren’t for the state’s Republican-drawn district maps.
“Because we have legislative maps that are rigged against Democrats, we have electoral maps that are rigged against women,” she said.
It wasn’t until 1998 that Wisconsin elected a woman to its congressional delegation; Tammy Baldwin became the first female U.S. senator from Wisconsin in 2013.
The following year, Democrat Mary Burke became the first female major party candidate for governor in Wisconsin. She lost to Walker.
“We have, as a society, a problem with women in executive leadership,” Forrest said. “It’s not a conscious bias, it’s not something people will admit, and it’s frequently not something people even know that they have. It’s really across the board where we’re comfortable with women leading with a group of people, but not on her own.”
The vast majority of women who hold elected office in Wisconsin serve in local government, a 2015 Wisconsin Women’s Council report found.
The report found that women held 23% of those elected offices, including making up 40% of school boards, 23% of city councils and 19% of county boards. The 2015 report found that just 12% of mayors were women, although places such as Watertown and Oshkosh have recently elected females.
Fewer women serve as mayors and governors nationwide, Forrest noted.
“And obviously, we’ve never had a woman elected president, yet.”
Lewis grew up hearing stories about female trailblazers like Phillips and the open housing marches from her mother, Deborah Tatum, who joined the protests when she was 12 years old.
“To hear the level of disrespect that she had to endure as a child was mind-blowing — for grown men, to spit at her and yell at her for exercising her rights,” Lewis said. “One, it had to be intimidating and very scary. But two, to stand your ground and to continue to move forward was an inspirational story for me.”
Lewis said now leans on her mother’s experience to help her get through her toughest days.
“If she can endure something like that as a child, then I should not complain about the hard times that I’m facing now, the hard decisions, or the stress, or just having to deal with all that we as women have to deal with on a day to day basis,” she said. “It showed to me that it if she was able to handle that, I will be able to handle this.”
Though the state trails the nation in the number of women with political power, there’s one exception: the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Six of the seven justices on the state’s highest court are women — the largest female majority of justices in the nation.
That will change in August when State Appeals Court Judge Brian Hagedorn takes his seat replacing Justice Shirley Abrahamson. At that point, Wisconsin will be tied with Oregon and still have the highest percentage in the country if the gender of justices on other state Supreme Courts doesn’t change.
Abrahamson was the first woman to sit on the state Supreme Court and the longest-serving justice in state history.
“I am grateful that there has been a place for me, mindful of the sacrifices of the women and men who broke down some of the barriers along the path that I have navigated, and honored to have played a role in eliminating barriers for others,” Abrahamson wrote in “Women’s Wisconsin,” published in 2005 — 29 years after former Gov. Patrick Lucey appointed her to the court.
“That the child of an immigrant grocer — and a girl, no less — could become a lawyer was, I am sure, unthinkable to many of the people who crossed my parents’ threshold.”
Abrahamson, part of the current court’s liberal minority, made history in Wisconsin because Madison was the only place she could find a job as a lawyer. After graduating from Indiana University’s law school in 1956 — the only female in her class — she was offered jobs as a librarian until a firm in Madison took a chance on hiring a woman.
“If law is truly going to serve the public’s interest, the profession must be opened wide to all people who wish to serve,” Abrahamson wrote. “The experience of women in the law mirrors the experience of women in many professions that were once exclusively male.”
Nevertheless, Wisconsin’s judiciary overall is still heavily male and lags the nation in gender diversity. In 2018, just 24% of all judges in Wisconsin were female — a 9 percentage point increase over 10 years prior, according to data from the National Association of Women Judges. Nationally, 33% of judges are female.
Connie Pillich, executive director of the association, said while Wisconsin’s overall picture is not that different from other states, the state Supreme Court is an outlier not only in percentage of female Supreme Court justices but also in how Supreme Court elections play out.
“We do find in the states where they are appointed, the process is a very rigorous process and very thorough … in those states we tend to have more women being appointed because they pass a gender-blind vetting process,” Pillich said. “Where judges are much more political, there are some differences. Part of that is women don’t run as often and part of that is they aren’t asked to run as often.”
In Wisconsin, female justices or judges won Supreme Court elections in six of eight elections over the last decade. In five of those elections, female candidates defeated men.
“That’s great. We need more women to run,” Pillich said about Wisconsin’s Supreme Court elections. “The judiciary will function best when it’s independent and has a multiplicity of our society.”