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Report examines Illinois women’s political power

Friday, Dec 8, 2023 - Posted by Isabel Miller

* Press release from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University…

From late 2021 to summer 2023, we conducted nearly 200 interviews with political leaders and practitioners like you in five states (Georgia, Illinois, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania). Those interviews are the heart of our new report, Rethinking Women’s Political Power, which is now available as a microsite at

This report examines specific political ecosystems in our selected states to illustrate that increasing women’s political power is a multi-site, multiracial, and bipartisan endeavor. It provides a deeper, more thorough understanding of the factors that shape women’s access to political power both within and across states, and specifically interrogates differences in experiences, as well as obstacles and opportunities for women’s expanded political power, by race/ethnicity, party, and position. It is also the first of multiple publications reliant on this interview data. Next up are more state-specific analyses that we plan to share in briefing and book format.

* Chapter two really goes into Illinois, especially the rise of Democratic women representation

The number of Democratic women serving in Illinois’ state legislature increased by 58% from 2010 to 2021, the year that long-time Speaker Michael Madigan (D) resigned from leadership of both the state House and the Illinois Democratic Party. Women were key to growing the Democratic majority in the legislature, representing over half of all newly-elected or appointed Democratic legislators in this period and increasing their proportion of the Democratic caucus from 36% in 2010 to more than 50% by 2021. In the same period, the number of Republican women state legislators in Illinois dropped. And this decline was not simply a function of Republican losses; women dropped from 23% to 19% of their party’s state legislators and were just 23% of Republican legislators elected for the first time from 2010 to 2020. As of November 2023, women are 41.8% of Illinois state legislators, including 53% of Democratic and 19% of Republican legislators. […]

Without a value-based motive for increasing women’s political representation, Madigan’s political program benefitted only some women, particularly those deemed by Madigan and his team as most electable in swing districts. For the most part, that translated into recruitment of white, moderate women in suburban districts, leaving other women – racially/ethnically diverse and more progressive – to fend for themselves. Commissioner Josina Morita (D) made this distinction, saying that Democratic leaders were looking for “a party player [who] would toe the party line and they tended to be white women who were socially progressive and fiscally moderate, and just kind of ran on the party line,” adding, “They weren’t real progressive types.” State Representative Kelly Cassidy (D) clarified that while Madigan hoped to recruit women he could control, “[He] accidentally brought some good strong women onboard, but definitely accidentally.”

Democratic political consultant Alex Sims included Madigan’s approach as part of a broader Democratic strategy at the time. She said, “It was very frustrating in 2015. It was the Wendy Davis time. It was the time when a lot of Democrats thought white women in the suburbs were what’s going to win the Democratic Party everything. …And so the Democratic Party would invest a lot of money in those efforts.” She added, “But that’s not to say that the white female vote in the suburbs isn’t an important vote…[but] it’s also a little bit about investment and who’s been with you for so long.” Black women were and continue to be the most reliable Democratic voters but were not primary beneficiaries of Madigan’s efforts. As U.S. Representative Robin Kelly (D) pointed out, “It was about [Madigan] at the end. …Because I’ll give you an example. I was the Democratic nominee for [state] treasurer, right? The Democratic Party of Illinois didn’t help me one bit. I’m Black and I’m a woman [and they] did not help me one bit and I lost because of lack of money, so, yeah.”

Click here to read the entire report.

* Republican women lawmakers voiced how their party is falling behind

I find that in the Republican Party they are trying harder to get a mix because…we lost a lot of Republican women. They were turned off by our party so the idea is now to make a push for getting more women to run for office because of that and because we need to get to those people that are undecided or turned off by the party. So I feel that there’s a big push here now. But we are certainly more open and willing to bring in more women now because we need to bring back these women that were so turned off [by] our party.”

- Evelyn Sanguinetti (R-IL) Former Lieutenant Governor

I know the House Republicans, [we] were always involved in looking for candidates and we love to have women. The problem is…a lot of times [women] don’t want to do it or they don’t pass the litmus tests that are now being imposed.”

- Christine Radogno (R-IL) Former State Senate Minority Leader

* Here are some comments from women members of the Democratic Party

I’m seeing over time though…we’ve had representatives of our party attend our meetings [of Lake County Democratic Women] which is great but again it felt like they really didn’t want us to exist. They felt there was some kind of competition there instead of seeing that this is a benefit to them. …When I talk to party leadership [about our organization’s work] they will say, ‘But we already do this, right, within the party.’ Not with intentionality. ….The competition really lifts everybody because you have to do better if they are doing better. So we’ve actually seen…our local party working much harder than they did [to support women].”

- Melinda Bush (D-IL) Former State Senator and Founder of Lake County Democratic Women

The toxicity of our politics [gives me pause for concern]. It’s definitely a disincentive for…everyone, but I think it’s particularly a disincentive for women because the vitriol that we get is much worse. I lost count of how many people over the last two years during the pandemic got their first death threat and called me first, [telling me] ‘You were the first person I thought of to ask what I should do about this,’ because I’ve been getting them forever as a lesbian, as a woman, as a big target – they’ve been coming for me for a long time. So that was a really interesting moment. The first time somebody called me…[I thought] ‘Oh God, I didn’t realize that’s who I was, you know.’”

- Kelly Cassidy (D-IL) State Representative

I would say there’s a support infrastructure to some degree [for women in Illinois politics]. And it’s in silos. …There is some support system [for women in politics in Illinois] but it’s not centralized. There’s no real centralized support system. That’s my view.”

- Heather Wier Vaught (D-IL) Democratic Lobbyist and Consultant and Former Chief Counsel to Speaker Michael Madigan


  1. - NIU Grad - Friday, Dec 8, 23 @ 12:15 pm:

    Plus the women leadership at the local/county level. I believe all but McHenry in the Collar Counties are chaired by women.

  2. - FormerGOPer - Friday, Dec 8, 23 @ 12:28 pm:

    I’m so old I can remember when it was the Republican Party that had more women legislators.

  3. - Grandson of Man - Friday, Dec 8, 23 @ 12:34 pm:

    “So I feel that there’s a big push here now.”

    Come join the freedom and liberty party, except for controlling your own body. The feat of attracting women to the GOP after Dobbs might be more difficult than the camel through the eye of a needle, if election results are an indicator.

  4. - Frida's boss - Friday, Dec 8, 23 @ 1:07 pm:

    Women’s power in Illinois Dem politics has been a boon for Illinois. It has gained national attention. The reduction in GOP women in politics is noted as well.
    Many of the moderate middle-ground suburban Dem women “converted” from when the GOP used to have a spine and could be pro-choice, Rosemary Mulligan, could still be in favor of Equality, Judy Barr Topinka, but when that changed they started losing ground.
    True that Mike Madigan helped create a “model” in the late 90s early 2000s in the suburbs but that is incredibly demeaning to many of the strong women leaders from the suburbs and places them into basic white women who can’t think for themselves “type”.
    Which if not for those women breaking through and creating incredible gains, taking risks in GOP-held districts, and fighting horrible attacks on their character from their friends and neighbors, the GA may not be as strong with women as it is now. Nice job Josina.

    To have city legislators diminish the contributions of suburban female legislators because they aren’t as progressive as those in the city shows a total lack of political intelligence and is demeaning to the efforts and struggles to be elected as a Dem in swing districts.
    It’s easy to run as a Dem in the city, you never have a GOP opponent.

  5. - Anyone Remember - Friday, Dec 8, 23 @ 1:08 pm:

    This dovetails nicely with Kevin McCarthy’s recent statement made at Oxford:

    “When you look at the Democrats, they actually look like America. When I look at my party, we look like the most restrictive country club in America.”

  6. - walker - Friday, Dec 8, 23 @ 1:16 pm:

    The whole report is worth reading.

  7. - Pot calling kettle - Friday, Dec 8, 23 @ 1:40 pm:

    I attended the Illinois’ House swearing in ceremony in January. The contrast between the R and D contingents was notable in terms of both gender and ethnicity.

  8. - low level - Friday, Dec 8, 23 @ 1:44 pm:

    ==To have city legislators diminish the contributions of suburban female legislators because they aren’t as progressive as those in the city shows a total lack of political intelligence==

    This is spot on. Whatever Madigan’s motivations, the women he recruited and supported in the suburbs did more for progressive causes than their Republican opponents would have done.

    Its also a bit of a head scratcher, this idea that legislators like Costa Howard or Kifowit were somehow controlled by leadership.

  9. - Thomas Paine - Friday, Dec 8, 23 @ 1:45 pm:

    First, I think the House Democrat’s increasing effort to recruit women candidates began in the late 90’s, not 2010. Madigan and his leaders saw success with candidates like Maggie Crotty (Brian Hynes), Mary K. O’Brien (Mike Thompson), and Susan Garrett (Eileen Mitchell) and said “Hey, we think we see a pattern here.”

    What was occuring in politics in the 2000’s as well in the wake of George Ryan and the rise of computer tech and theinternet was increasing anti-incumbent attitudes and increasingly sophisticated opposition research. The old formula of promoting current (mostly male) politicians to state rep was failing, as people looked more and more for political outsiders. And people were getting really good ar finding goofy statements, votes, incriminating photos of current public officials made when they were on the city council or school board and using it against them in their run for the legislature.

    Madigan’s staff realized they could avoid this pitfalls by recruiting community leaders with no prior record.

    The lack of a hard voting record also gave candidates some wiggle room on legislative issues, and there is no question campaign staff wanted candidates to bend as much as possible to fit the values of the district. You can say they wanted “moderates and not progressives” if you like, but I can assure you that if polling showed the district was as far left as Hyde Park, thats probably where they would have been pushing them.

    There is also no question that Madigan’s campaign staff had a rigid playbook of what they thought winning campaigns looked like and what winning candidates should do with their waking hours. I don’t think the goal was to elect syncophants to the General Assembly. In fact, Madigan wanted his “targeted” members to vote in sync with their districts, not him, on the big issues.

  10. - Anyone Remember - Friday, Dec 8, 23 @ 3:23 pm:

    Madigan’s foresight. 1996 potentially was going to end up 59-59. Had he not died & been replaced by his son Mike, Roger McAuliffe was going to nominate Ralph Capparelli for Speaker. Madigan insisted he’d win 60-58, based on Coal City - Mary K. O’Brien. He was right.

  11. - Rich Miller - Friday, Dec 8, 23 @ 3:28 pm:

    ===Madigan’s foresight===

    He simply copied Lee Daniels’ 94 strategy.

  12. - Anyone Remember - Friday, Dec 8, 23 @ 3:57 pm:

    And Daniels’rules. Still think Newt’s effect in 1994 is ignored.

  13. - Annon'in - Sunday, Dec 10, 23 @ 11:19 am:

    Interesting reactions. No one seems to mention the D women who serve in the House from nearly every downstate urban area.

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