On the same evening President Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union address, nearly 100 people, mostly women, came to the Riverside Township Auditorium to listen to a panel of six women discuss their involvement in electoral politics.
The panel included two residents of Riverside: Village Trustee Elizabeth Peters and Cook County judicial candidate Kathryn Maloney Vahey. The other panelists were Marie Newman, who is challenging Congressman Daniel Lipinski (D-Western Springs) in the March 20 Democratic primary; Cook County Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough; Berwyn Alderman Jeanine Reardon; and Elyse Hoffenberg, a member of the LaGrange School District 105 Board of Education.
The forum was hosted by Indivisible West Suburban Action League and co-sponsored by other local Indivisible groups.
“We’re opting out of the State of the Union to see some real leaders here,” said Jennifer Fournier, a co-founder of Riverside-based West Suburban Action League.
Many women have been energized by the election of Trump and are running for office in unprecedented numbers. Newman said she was shocked and disappointed by Trump’s victory, but after sulking for a day, she determined to take action and decided to run for Congress, a campaign that she said she has been working on for 19 to 20 hours a day.
Nationally, women make up just under 20 percent of the members of Congress. Men predominate in local politics too.
In Brookfield, Riverside, and North Riverside 16 out of the 21 village board seats are filled by men. On the seven local area school boards, there are 28 men and 21 women.
The panelists at the forum discussed obstacles women face in running for office. Some of the obstacles are internal.
Some panelists said that women tend to believe that they are not prepared enough or qualified enough to run for office and hold back when a man might forge ahead anyway. That is something women need to get over, said Yarbrough, by far the most experienced politician on the panel. She was first elected as a state representative in 2000.
“I think we have to say yes when the opportunity presents itself,” said Yarbrough, noting that she lost her first race for public office and had to be encouraged to run again.
Peters, who is the only woman on the Riverside Village Board, said that women often doubt themselves and think they are not ready for an office or a race.
“We want to do it right, we want to be nurturing,” Peters said. “And I really don’t want to be gender stereotypical here, but I think women often feel like they need to have all their ducks in a row before they try to solve a problem.
“Confidence in doing what you need to do, knowing that you might not succeed, but doing it anyway, is something that I think really holds women back, more than you think.”
Working women with young children often don’t run for office, because they simply feel that they don’t have the time to do so.
Peters knows the challenge firsthand. She has a demanding job as an intellectual property lawyer at a large law firm and has two young children at home.
She said that she is always aware of the demands on her time, and that time crunch affects the way she approaches her work as village trustee. At every village board meeting, she is aware that she has two little kids waiting for her at home.
“I’m running home after every board meeting to put them to bed,” Peters said. “The demands on my life are different than the men who are on that board — and it’s not a bad thing, it’s not a good thing — it’s something that has to be recognized and it’s something that I take into account.”
Vahey, who has been an assistant Cook County public defender for 19 years, has children in fifth and sixth grades. She said that she wouldn’t have run for judge now if they were younger. Even now, she said, it was hard to take the plunge and run for judge.
“I think it’s a brave thing to raise your hand and say, ‘I’m going to run for office,'” Vahey said. “I have to say I was reluctant to do it at first, but this has been an amazing experience of getting up and doing.”
Asking for campaign contributions, essential for most campaigns, is a tough thing for many women to do.
“You have to ask everybody,” Yarbrough said. “You have to ask every single person. It was difficult, but sometimes the difficulty is on our end, because we don’t want to ask.”
Newman said that women need to be forceful, a statement Reardon agreed with.
“I will not sit down and shut up and be cute,” Reardon said.
Yarbrough said she had to deal with a boys’ culture in Springfield and was once pinched on the behind by a state senator, but she confronted him about it and it never happened again.
“I work with the boys, but I don’t take anything from the boys,” Yarbrough said. “I don’t let anyone call me honey or baby.”