In Springfield this evening, 300 legislators, advocates, lobbyists, and staff will gather for the annual Council of Women Legislators (COWL) scholarship foundation fundraiser. Other caucuses ofaffiliation throw outstanding parties. This fundraiser is remembered for the wit that finds its way into the script and for the display of strong collaboration across parties and between the Illinois House and the Senate. It has become the signature event for COWL.
But COWL is—or at least was—more than the host of an amazing fundraiser. When I first began as an advocate in Springfield, getting on the short list of COWL's priorities was the hope of all advocates for low-income children and families. COWL was the voice, regardless of political affiliation, around issues of importance for "women, children, and families." While always staying away from ideological positions, COWL did bring attention to issues that would have been ignored otherwise. For example, they were early speakers about the importance of investing in early childhood development.
For the past three decades, the COWL activists came from both political parties. They worked out their differences to get to a consensus around their priorities. As a result, in the old days when being bi-partisan was a good thing, this meant that the five "tops"—the Governor and the leaders of the House and Senate Democrat and Republican caucuses—paid attention. When there was new money to allocate, some of it went to COWL priorities on behalf of women.
In contrast, its national sister, the National Foundation for Women Legislators, focused on building women leaders. Specifically, they provide strategic resources to women leaders for leadership development and effective governance through conferences, seminars, education materials, professional and personal relationships, and networking at both the state and federal levels. Legislators who are part of NFLW join through the National Order of Women Legislators, which itself were established in 1938 to "promote a spirit of helpfulness among all present and former women elected officials."
Call me naive but there is something deeply satisfying at electing women leaders who care about other women, including those who most likely will never be elected to any public office. The COWL legislators connected across the aisle and they connected to their less politically powerful sisters. They rejoiced in using their influence to help women struggling to raise children and care for frail family members. This was never a Republican or Democratic thing.
I don't know why the original COWL leaders chose an altruistic route when other groups of female elected officials focused on building women power. The year 1979, when COWL was started, must have been a lonely and frustrating time to be a woman in the Illinois State Legislature. Lonely because it meant being part of a small minority, only 11% of legislators were women. Frustrating because year after year, the Illinois State Legislature failed to get the three-fifths majority required for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. (In 1972, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution and sent it to the 50 States for ratification. 35 states ratified the amendment but the magic number was 38 by 1982. It failed.)
It would have made sense for COWL to focus simply on getting more women into and succeed in political office.
Yet the first leaders, state legislators Eugenia Chapman (D) and Mary Dwyer (R) did not do that. They sought to encourage female legislators from both sides of the aisle "to work in a bi-partisan fashion through legislation and advocacy, to advance the interests of all Illinois women, through state, local, and federal initiatives." Even today, the COWL mission statement talks about women, children, and families.
One interesting fact is that the number of Illinois state legislative seats held by women has almost tripled from 11% in 1979 to 31% in 2011. Illinois has improved its national ranking on the criteria of number of women in office from 31st in 1975 to 7th in the country in 2011. Contrast this fact withthe national increase in percentage of women state legislative seats from 10 percent to 24%.
Tonight, the bi-partisan nature of COWL will be on display as they put on bi-partisan entertainment. But what is missing this year is COWL's role in cultivating bi-partisan initiatives around issues of importance to women, children, and families. The declining visibility of COWL's policy influence may be a casualty of the Blagojevich days as he was the first Governor not to work with COWL. Or it may be due to the decline in popularity of "bi-partisan" work. Or I may be missing intense discussions among women legislators in the privacy of member-only COWL meetings about how to continue this work. I only hope so because the collective COWL voice did so much good for so long.