March 21, 2007

Wisconsin Women Lead the Way

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

Four months ago, the Wisconsin State Senate welcomed the 31st woman to its chambers.  Kathleen Vinehout, a Senator from the Eau Claire region took the oath of office 31 years after the first women graced the Senate Floor.  As we celebrate Women’s History Month in March, we must pause to remember those who took the monumental step of helping to lead this state, and create a brighter future for all of our daughters.

I have always been very proud of Wisconsin’s tradition of strong, progressive women.  Wisconsin was the first state to ratify the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote.  Wisconsin was also the first state to guarantee women full and equal rights, an enormous step when you consider the male dominated institutions of the time.  These movements were led in large part by an extraordinary woman named Olympia Brown, one of the founders of the women’s suffrage movement.

Of course, our tradition does not stop there.  In 1925, 3 women were elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly.  Mildred Barber, Helen Brooks, and Helen F. Thompson, stood up, and created a rich legacy for all of us to follow.  I cannot imagine the hardships they faced as they confronted to good ole boys club that government was at the time.  Their strength has given rise to many who would follow their example.

In 1975, the first woman, Kathryn Morrison, was elected to the State Senate.  Decades later, Mary Panzer would be the first woman Majority leader of the State Senate, and this year Judy Robson became the first Democratic woman to serve in that post. 

As a state we can boast of leaders like Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, Lt. Governor Barbara Lawton, and Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court Shirley Abrahamson, all of whom were the first women to hold their positions.  Here in the Senate, the First African American woman was Gwen Moore, and I was the second.

Despite these highlights, we must also face the very real truth that women are sorely lacking in the political process.  In over 150 years, only 103 women have served in the State Legislature.  The numbers are worse still on a local level.  Currently, Wisconsin averages only 3 women elected officials per county!  Many localities have no women in service at all.  We need only look at the makeup of the Milwaukee City Council to know this is true.

So while we celebrate Women’s History Month, we must also renew our commitment to the fight for women’s rights.  We must look inside ourselves, and find the strength to step up and speak out.  We must teach our daughters that they can and must become leaders in this fight.  And we must never forget the struggle is not over, in fact, it is just beginning.