Just a few years ago, Illinois looked like barren territory to the national leaders of the women’s movement. In 1989 Molly Yard, then the president of the National Organization for Women, talked to a group of supporters about NOW’s deployment of resources for the upcoming elections. Yard said, “We have to pick states where we can have victories and not spread ourselves too thin. I’m not sure about Illinois; I’m not sure it’s one where we’ll decide to spend our wherewithal.”

Since last month’s primary election, feminists are singing a different tune. And it’s not just the surprise victory of Carol Moseley Braun that’s changed their minds. “Illinois has had, in this primary, the most dramatic gender gap we’ve ever seen,” says Pat Reilly, spokesperson for the National Women’s Political Caucus in Washington. “It is the first time women have clearly voted for women just because they were women. . . . The diversity issue–bringing more diversity into the government–seems to be a motivating factor. Women around the country who have been running for office have been winning their primaries, but Illinois has dramatically higher numbers than any other state. It is a graphic example of what could be.”

There are 118 seats in the Illinois House of Representatives. Last month women won nomination to run for 37 of them, more than 30 percent of the total. Of those 37, l9 have in effect won their seats already, because they will have either no opposition or only token opposition in the November general election. Seven more are now favored to win in November; if they do, the house will have at least 26 woman members, where now there are 20.

Women did not challenge as many seats in state senate races and thus did not have as much of an impact there. Of 59 seats in the Illinois Senate, 11 are held by women. Three new women won nominations to senate seats in the primary, and expectations are high that two of those three will win in the general election.

What may be the most interesting figure of all–the clearest expression of women’s dissatisfaction with the status quo–is the increase in the number of women running for office. Clearly the more women who run, the more elected. In l990, 46 women ran for the state house of representatives. In l992, 7l ran, an increase of nearly 55 percent.

Luellen Laurenti, NOW’s lobbyist in Springfield, says that even three or four new votes in the house and a couple in the senate will be crucial for women’s issues. As an example she recalls an antiabortion bill that came up for voting unexpectedly during the last term of the legislature. This bill would have severely restricted second- trimester abortions, which are already very difficult to get. On the day the vote was taken, NOW was having a “lobby day,” in which members descend on Springfield to lobby on various women’s issues.

“We had another agenda for that day, but we quickly switched and concentrated on that bill. The prolifers had to have 60 votes to win in the house. They only got 59. So we won, but only by one vote. That’s how tight it was in the house. Any more prochoice votes we can get will make the situation safer for us.”

A freedom of choice bill introduced April l0 in the house to replace Roe v. Wade, which is likely to be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court as early as this July, will probably not pass in this term, but should have smooth sailing in the next term of the legislature.

Especially significant, Laurenti says, were two primary races whose results do not change the male-female numbers in the legislature but dramatically change the political landscape by unseating two of the state’s most prominent prolifers. “Knocking off Penny Pullen and, in the senate, Richard Kelly [William Shaw, a prochoice man, won that race] is a big plus for us. We knocked off the prolife leadership. They’re going to have to search around for new leadership and quite frankly, given the message of this election, I wouldn’t think anyone would want to stick his neck out too far on this issue.”

No longer, Laurenti says, will prochoice women be stuck in the defensive position of trying to stop antichoice legislation, as has been true in the past. “Now we’ll be able to pass our own legislation.”

Looking at issues other than abortion, Laurenti notes that while Governor Edgar is prochoice, he does not favor all the issues on the women’s agenda. Thus the task of women activists in the legislature is not just to pass bills but to gather enough votes to override the governor’s veto. For example the family/medical leave bill has twice been passed in the legislature and both times vetoed. The second time it had enough votes to override the veto in the house but fell six short in the senate. “We are introducing it again this spring for another round, but it may have to wait to make it until after the November election, if indeed we can do it then. The same thing is true of the pay equity issue,” Laurenti says.

“The input of women is going to have an impact on the output of the legislative process,” Laurenti predicts. “In the legislature, women will begin functioning as a bloc. You don’t have to have 50 percent to stop or pass something. You just have to have enough votes to play ball with the boys and say, ‘As a bloc, we’re going to hang together, and if you don’t come around on this thing, we’re just going to sit here on our hands.'” Three of the new house candidates–Jan Schakowsky of Evanston and Judy Erwin and Nancy Kaszak of Chicago–have already begun discussions about forming a women’s caucus, which the house has not had before.

Laurenti notes that in all the state legislatures that failed to pass the federal Equal Rights Amendment, 76 percent of the female representatives voted for the measure, while only 36 percent of the males did. “Clearly, an incremental increase of women does mean an incremental increase of support for women’s issues, even if all the women aren’t with you l00 percent of the time.”

The woman who beat the leader of the house’s antichoice, antifeminist forces–the infamous Penny Pullen of the northwest suburbs–is Republican Rosemary Mulligan, who was supported by virtually every liberal and women’s-rights group active in this year’s state elections. Because her district is so heavily Republican, Mulligan is expected to win easily in November.

Mulligan, 50, has been involved for years in the leadership of Business and Professional Women and is a member of the National Women’s Political Caucus, the League of Women Voters, and a number of Republican organizations. She has been a degreed paralegal for ten years, working for a suburban firm where she specializes in municipal law.

Mulligan ran against Pullen in l990. She lost that race by six votes, after a recount and a long, bitter court battle, and has campaigned virtually ever since, she says. This year, in a three-way race, she won 5l percent of the vote, with Pullen taking only 42 percent.

“I thought I won by a pretty healthy margin considering all the stuff that was going on. Many Republicans took Democratic ballots to vote for Carol Moseley Braun. But that’s what we’ve been talking about for a long time. If women would get together and vote for women, regardless of party, we could win races. I think that’s what you saw happening.

“A lot of women were really angry about the appointment of Clarence Thomas, a lot of women who obviously didn’t speak up. Women I work with talk about it a lot–particularly women who’ve been in the workplace a long time. They really thought Anita Hill sounded very credible. Women who’ve been in the workplace, particularly professional women, identified with her and thought what she was saying was true and were very upset. Then you sit down and argue with counterparts of the senators and you realize that they really don’t understand what’s going on. I think women just decided to vote on that issue.”

Several candidates said that abortion seemed to be the major issue on women’s minds. Mulligan says, “For my race, while choice was very important, I think it was most important that my opponent was out of touch with the district. She was only interested in doing things with Phyllis Schlafly. I think jobs and the economy are really important issues. When we go door to door, it’s not so much that taxes are high, it’s how they are spent. If they’re going to get fair value for their tax dollar, people don’t mind paying taxes, but they don’t think they are. I think that’s one of the top issues.

“And I think they want some access to their legislator. They want to be able to talk to you and they want to look you square in the eye and feel comfortable that you’re telling the truth. Penny Pullen never gave them that.

“Republican women who got out and talked about the issues did well for the same reasons. Those Republican women candidates are going to be very important to the Republican men in the fall. I think women will be able to go to the men and say, ‘This is real important and we need to do something about this,’ and the men will listen. The women will have a voice and the men will have to listen to us on those issues because they need those issues. Women are going to take a good hard look at how they vote and they’re going to identify with Republican women as well as Democratic women.

“I think that women bring a different negotiating skill. I’m glad I have some of that having come from the legal profession. But I think women have the feeling of wanting to get the job done and feeling less threatened about how we accomplish it. We want to negotiate to the end, whereas I think that some men want to negotiate so that it looks like they have the power.”

Having established herself with a variety of liberal organizations, how will Mulligan reconcile her views with those of the conservative Republicans with whom she will have to work in the house? “I don’t come from the party leadership especially, so I’m going to have to find a way to, well, fit myself in.” She laughs and says, “I’m trying to find the right words to avoid sounding condescending. On some issues I’ll vote with the Republicans, and on some I’ll vote with the other side of the aisle.”

Mulligan, running in a three-way race and well supported by the numerous foes of Penny Pullen, was considered a pretty safe bet to win her primary. But many other women followed the underdog pattern of the candidate who turned out to be the standard-bearer in this election, Carol Moseley Braun. Like Braun, many had very little money and rather poorly organized campaigns, and some got off to late starts. Many are also like Braun in that they are strong liberals and fully support women’s issues, including abortion. Finally, many were viewed as Braun was by the political establishment–as crazy long shots. One of these was Carol Ronen, who won in traditionally liberal Edgewater-Rogers Park against a generally well-regarded liberal man, Lee Preston. Another was Nancy Kaszak, who won in Lakeview and Uptown against one of the institutions of the Illinois house, Al Ronan, who had fairly recently come around to vote with women on some of their issues. Kaszak will face only negligible Republican opposition in November; Ronen will face none.

Kaszak was making her second try for elective office. In l987, she ran for alderman of the 46th Ward and came in a distant third behind Helen Shiller and Jerome Orbach. In the l99l aldermanic race, she supported the loser, Mike Quigley, the Daley-backed challenger to Shiller, because, she says, “Helen never asked for my support and Mike is a very old close personal friend who did ask for my support.”

Kaszak clearly has ties to the Daley administration. She has been the chief attorney for the Chicago Park District for several years, in charge of l4 attorneys. (In that job, she helped write a family/medical leave program for the Park District.) Still, in the early weeks of her campaign, with very little activity in evidence, there was a general feeling that she could not win against Ronan, and there was no evidence she was getting any help from downtown.

Her endorsements, while they included the Sun-Times, the Lerner Newspapers, Chicago NOW, the Windy City Times, and the Illinois Public Action Council (IPAC), were not from organizations that could give her much campaign help. NOW, IPAC, and Network 48, an independent political organization in the 48th Ward, were helpful, but Kaszak did not receive the kind of resources that Mulligan did because she seemed to be such a long shot. As a resident of her district, I received at least a dozen calls soliciting my support for Ronan. I received one call from the Kaszak campaign.

Then, in the final two weeks of the campaign, my mail was suddenly flooded with highly professional campaign literature that took Ronan apart on his record as a legislator and a lobbyist for big business. Ronan replied with mail pieces defending his record, but the Kaszak pieces were quite devastating and the feeling about her chances of winning began to turn.

Kaszak says that the late appearance of those influential mailings was part of her overall campaign strategy, but also that it was exacerbated by a computer error that prevented some precincts from receiving earlier mailings. Perhaps. On the other hand, the help of Alderman Richard Mell, who had had a bitter falling-out with Ronan, may have come just in time to get those mailings out. Mell paid for three mailings, posters, and a substantial amount of duplicating. “Alderman Mell and Al Ronan had had a political divorce,” Kaszak says, “and he was looking for the best candidate to beat him and came to me.”

Kaszak’s campaign fund–approximately $57,000–came, she says, from three sources: “Friends, people who didn’t like Ronan’s voting record, and Alderman Mell.” But Mell’s in-kind contributions and mailing expenses, which Kaszak says have not yet been figured, probably raise that sum substantially. Mell says, “I decided to support Nancy as soon as Mike Madigan decided he wouldn’t, within the first week of her campaign.” He says he paid for the first three mailings.

Kaszak thinks she won partly because Ronan was running in a newly mapped district in which he does not live and has no reputation. Kaszak, by contrast, had been deeply involved in community activities, most notably the effort to prevent lights in Wrigley Field.

But there was more to it than that, she adds. “It was very clear to me early on that the women’s vote was going to be critical. I had women in their 60s, 70s, and 80s–not your traditional NOW or Cook County Democratic Women–in nursing homes, in the shopping centers, coming up to me and saying, ‘Honey, we need to get more women down in Springfield. These guys have messed it up so bad. I know how to handle my budget. Why can’t they handle their budget? We just have to get more women in there.’

“I also had men come to me and say, ‘I plan on voting for women this year because we’re more likely to get honest people in government with women.’ There seems to be a perception that women will be likely to make things better, are less likely to be corrupted by the influences that affect men. There is a general dissatisfaction with government and people are looking to women for a change. I started seeing that right in the beginning of the campaign. By the last couple of weeks, judging from the reactions of so many people, especially women, I knew I was winning.

“Choice was the single greatest issue question I was asked in the campaign: ‘Are you prochoice and what is your position on those issues?'”

Grace Kaminkowitz, a longtime leader among Democratic women and a representative of the Illinois Women’s Political Caucus, which endorsed a long list of women in the primary, agrees with Mulligan that women voted on the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill issue. “When I tried to determine why all the polls showed that a majority of women supported Thomas, it took me a bit to figure it out, but I did. Just because they thought he should be confirmed didn’t mean that women didn’t believe Anita Hill or that they weren’t angry. I think what we saw was that Clarence Thomas did a masterful job of portraying himself as the underdog, and the good old American public, including women, said, ‘Aw, poor man, he’s having this stolen away from him at the last minute. Look at the crummy way they’re handling it. At the last minute, they’re doing this to him. They’re being racists. He should be confirmed.’

“That didn’t mean that they weren’t angry at the Senate, at the way they handled it, at all the white men in the Senate, and that they didn’t take out their frustration at the ballot box. Especially after the banking scandal. I think that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It confirmed their worst suspicions of what those fellows in Washington were doing. Even the American public has a breaking point after which they say, ‘OK, that’s enough,’ and fortunately that point coincided with the Illinois primary and women voted against men candidates in general.”

Many women candidates were helped by the endorsements and financial support of liberal political organizations. Personal Pac, a prochoice group, endorsed and supported six women candidates around the state and gave about $200,000 worth of in-kind services–mailing, phoning, organizing–to more than 50 prochoice candidates, male and female. “We have many options of what we can do for a candidate to make sure that they win. We work closely with a candidate to see what can be done all along the way,” says Terry Cosgrove, executive director. In addition to Mulligan, Personal Pac supported Judy Erwin, of the Lincoln Park district, Carolyn Krause, a former mayor of Mount Prospect, and three women from southern Illinois, all of whom won nomination. Of the six, only two face tough races in November; half are Democratic and half are Republican. Personal Pac makes its endorsements solely on the basis of the candidates’ positions on abortion rights.

Cosgrove says that this election marked an entirely new trend. “Party identity appears to be crumbling around the issue of choice. People are voting on this issue. We got hundreds of calls before the election saying, ‘I don’t care which party it is. Just tell me who the choice candidate is.’ People had to give up their vote for president very often in order to vote for the prochoice candidate and that’s what they seem to have done. And it’s not just a matter of voting right. What Carol Ronen and Nancy Kaszak were saying in their races against men who have voted OK on choice issues is, ‘It’s not enough to vote right on women’s issues. We want leadership.'”

Illinois NOW also takes credit for the wins of the women they endorsed and campaigned for, though their total financial contribution amounted to only $5,000 scattered to about a dozen candidates. Of the l8 women NOW endorsed and worked for in the house and senate races, ten won. Unlike Personal Pac, NOW bases its endorsements on a variety of issues having to do with women’s rights: pay equity, family/medical leave, lesbian/gay rights, and the federal Equal Rights Amendment.

This election marked the first time, according to Illinois NOW president Gay Bruhn, that Republican women candidates sought out the endorsements and support of NOW.

Another organization that takes credit for the election of a number of women is the Illinois Political Action Council. While IPAC is certainly interested in women’s issues, its main concerns are with consumer protection, environmental policy, health care, and other “public interest” issues. A candidate who is, according to IPAC, “right” on abortion but not on other social and economic issues will not get its endorsement. Nor will IPAC endorse a woman running against a man who has voted right on the issues important to IPAC. For instance, while Carol Ronen was favored by more than half of IPAC’s board, according to executive director Robert Creamer, she was not endorsed because the veteran incumbent, Lee Preston, had a 100 percent voting record with IPAC.

Creamer gives voice to what is becoming almost a homily among political pundits: “Women on the whole tend to vote in a more progressive fashion, not only in Illinois, but across the nation.” On the other hand, he says, “that doesn’t guarantee that just because somebody is a woman that she’s not going to be as bad on public interest questions as her male colleagues. Some of the most reactionary people in the legislature have been women. So, while the increased dominance of women on the Democratic side will clearly make for a more progressive and a more public interest-oriented statehouse, the presence of women on the Republican side will probably have an effect for liberals only on the fairly narrow band of social policy questions, and not always there. All you need to do is look at Penny Pullen.”

Another organization that was very involved in the primary, though it cannot make endorsements or actively campaign because of its limited not-for-profit charter, is Illinois Planned Parenthood. Much of the prochoice legislation introduced in the legislature, like the freedom of choice bill introduced this month by Representative Jeffrey Schoenberg of Skokie, with 26 cosponsors, is written by Pamela A. Sutherland, the organization’s Springfield lobbyist, and her colleagues. Before an election, Planned Parenthood sends a questionnaire on a variety of abortion-related issues to all candidates, which it then makes available to a variety of interested people and groups.

Lee Preston, the progressive male legislator left in the dust of this feminine electoral sweep, is philosophical in defeat. “There is clearly a feeling among the voters that they want more women in government. I think their sensitivity to the issue was heightened by Senator Dixon’s vote on Clarence Thomas, which prompted Carol Braun to enter the Senate race. That certainly heightened interest in the issue of women being represented in government at all levels. Women voted for Braun, who I was proud to have endorsed, and went on voting for women candidates right down the line.

“No one thought Carol Ronen was going to win, including Carol Ronen. The prediction was that I would win 2 to l. That included independent polls taken close to the election. But when people went into the voting booth and saw the name Carol, followed by two men, that did it. I didn’t lose because I didn’t have a good campaign. I had the best campaign a person could have. I had the endorsements of all the newspapers and many of the organizations I cared about, and some that didn’t endorse me said that I was the best legislator and gave me awards. It was just the tide and time of change.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.