Chosen to Lead
female officeholders challenge the status quo
It’s been nearly a century since Wisconsin became the first state in the union to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed women the right to vote, and yet women hold less than one-quarter of elected offices in the state.
Why don’t more women run for office? Do women offer different leadership skills than men? And would our communities, state, and nation benefit from having more women in office? The answers to these questions are as varied and nuanced as the views of the Chippewa Valley’s female officeholders themselves.
I tend to think that among women – and mostly I’m around women leaders now – there is a different perspective, although it is hard to define it.” – Kerry Kincaid • Eau Claire City Council president
Kerry Kincaid has served 13 years on the Eau Claire City Council, the past eight of them as president. She said her perspective on women’s leadership traits has changed over time. When she came of age in the 1960s, the standard feminist answer to the question of whether men and women were fundamentally different was “no,” and the goal of the women’s movement was to gain equality in all aspects of society. For women, being different than men had always meant being inferior to them, Kincaid explained. As she’s gotten older, however, her thinking has evolved. “We have different work habits, different perspectives,” Kincaid said of women. “Would it be better to say, yes, we are different? … I tend to think that among women – and mostly I’m around women leaders now – there is a different perspective, although it is hard to define it.”
Whatever it is – a shared method of communication, similar habits, experiencing a similar culture – Kincaid said she and the other three women on the Eau Claire City Council share a similar language during debates and discussions.
Kathy Mitchell, who has served on the council since 2011, agreed that women and men reach decisions differently. “As we make decisions and as we govern, we’re influenced by our gender, our experiences, our background, our education,” Mitchell said. “There’s research to show that women do make decisions in some areas differently than men. ... I would say for myself personally, because I am a woman, I am more patient, more understanding. I have spent a lot of time over the years in nurturing neighborhoods.”
Mitchell said she’s never felt opposition from voters because of her gender. However, during her previous career (she was a longtime official at UW-Eau Claire), she sometimes felt that, as a woman, she didn’t receive the respect she should have. Because of this, she made doubly sure she did her homework. “That habit has stuck with me, and it has been helpful,” she said.
Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle, a veteran of five years on the council, said she has encountered sexism in the political arena, including a “whispering campaign” that she had never held a job before seeking office (which was untrue). “I also remember people encouraging me not to run because someone had to take care of my young child,” she said. “And truly, someone told me that as a young woman I wouldn’t know how to properly vote on sidewalk policies.” In reality, she explained, being a mother informs her decision-making on many issues – including the need for sidewalks.
With four seats on the 11-member Eau Claire City Council, women make up 36 percent of the body. Meanwhile, 11 of 29 members of the Eau Claire County – or 38 percent – are women. Those figures are comparatively high: Statewide, women hold only 23 percent of all local elected offices, a 2015 survey by the Wisconsin Women’s Council found. The figure for the state Legislature is identical, while roughly 20 percent of seats in the U.S. House and Senate are held by women.
When Colleen Bates was first elected to the Eau Claire County Board in 1982, she was one of only four women. “I can say very honestly that I had a few incidents where the door was closed in my face and I was told they would never vote for a woman,” she said of her early campaigns.
Bates acknowledged that being one of the few women on the board was intimidating, so she worked especially hard to make sure she was well-informed. “The whole issue was trying to gain credibility, to be someone who the board thought came prepared,” she said. Over the decades, things have changed for women in elected office, as more females have risen upward in higher education and the workforce.
“I feel we have a lot of very bright, very capable women who have to look inside themselves and see if this is something they want to do,” Bates said.
Emmanuelle, the City Council member, said there are many factors at play in the dearth of women in public office. “There is research that says that women don’t feel they are qualified to run, need to wait for the ‘right time,’ are conflicted on how to balance family responsibilities, and don’t think they have the right credentials to be involved,” she said. Improved family-friendly policies are needed to encourage more people – regardless of gender, income, sexual orientation, or other status – to run for office, Emmanuelle added. “Having more women elected would help to normalize women sharing political power and lending their voices to literally give life and shape our communities – through policy ideas, actions, and successes,” she said.
Chris Hambuch-Boyle, president of the Eau Claire school board, said running for public office four years ago was a difficult choice. Even after she decided to run, she would look with dread at lists of houses whose doors she had to knock. “But when I was done,” she explained, “I was euphoric.”
Today, Hambuch-Boyle is pleased to see more women seeking office. “I have to say that we are in a change right now because I know a lot of women running for office,” she said. “I know a lot of women are stepping up: If we need someone, why not me?”
More female officeholders would improve the nation, she added: “I don’t want to get down on men at all, but I think we need men to stand up for women, in terms of how we contribute and who we are, and we need to get treated that way.”
Mitchell, the City Council member, said the nation’s current political climate has given women more impetus to seek elected office. “I think that goes right back to our president and his views on women,” she said, alluding to the women-led protests that followed the inauguration of Donald Trump and the subsequent profusion of female political candidates nationwide.
“If I look at the political arena right now,” Mitchell added, “I think a woman can run for any office at the state and local levels and not worry about the fact that she is a woman being a detriment.”