One of the first things a visitor to the council chambers in both Riverside and Brookfield notices is a wall covered with the photos of village presidents, from incorporation in the 19th century to the present.
Most are black-and-white portraits, framed and arranged in rows. All of those photos on display are of men.
“People comment on that,” said Jill Mateo, who was sworn into her first term in office as a village trustee in Riverside on May 4 after serving as the chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission for the past seven years. “It’s meaningful there are no women up there.”
Jennifer Hendricks, who was on Brookfield’s Planning and Zoning Commission for 13 years before being elected trustee in 2021, said she had a similar reaction in Brookfield.
“Whoa, that’s a lot of men,” said Hendricks when asked how that Wall of Guys comes across to women. “I guess it’s what I expected, and I guess we have work to do.”
No woman has been village president in either village, but within the past week both now have village boards which are majority female – for the first time in their century-plus histories.
“This trend is building gender equality and our community is benefitting from it,” said Cristin Evans, who was sworn in to her second four-year term on the Riverside village board on May 4. “Women are natural problem-solvers and that translates into more responsive government. Women’s leadership and perspectives are essential to communities that thrive.”
It’s not just women taking on leadership roles as elected officials. In Riverside, Brookfield and North Riverside, woman hold some of the most important jobs in their municipalities.
Jessica Frances, who has been Riverside village manager since 2014, was hired as the finance director in 2012. Her administrative team includes women in the roles of assistant manager in Ashley Monroe, finance director in Karin Johns and village planner in Anne Cyran.
Brookfield Assistant Village Manager Stevie Ferrari, appointed to that role late in 2022, was promoted to the No. 2 administrative spot after transforming the recreation department during a four-year stint as its director.
Like Riverside, the head of the Brookfield Community Development Department, Emily Egan, is a woman, as is the planner, Kate Portillo.
North Riverside’s administrator, Sue Scarpiniti, served as the village’s finance director for two decades before taking on the top village hall job in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The village was also the first of the three to hire a woman, Deborah Garcia, as police chief.
Of course, women long have played prominent roles in those aspects of local governance, as members of volunteer advisory commissions, as elected school and library board members, leading local charities and school-related organizations.
And there have been two and sometimes up to three women serving on local municipal boards, but never four – never a majority, until now. The timing isn’t a coincidence.
After the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States in 2016, women were often those stepping up to organize left-leaning grassroots political organizations, such as Indivisible. They threw themselves into campaigning for the 2018 midterms and tasted success.
Evans, a member of Indivisible, and Megan Claucherty were among those stepping up to run and win elective office in Riverside in 2019.
“Decisions are being made at all levels of government on issues that disproportionately affect women, and those decisions are being made without enough women at the table,” Claucherty said. “This fundamental imbalance is motivating women to run for office.”
In Brookfield, there’s been a tradition, at least within the PEP Party, which has held every seat on the village board since 2005 of women in the party recruiting female candidates.
The late Cathy Edwards, for example, encouraged Nicole Gilhooley to run in 2013. Gilhooley would serve two full terms as trustee and then sat out for two years before being encouraged to run again in 2023 – this time with an all-female slate, which included Brookfield Parks and Recreation Board member Julie Narimatsu and Katie Kaluzny, who was first elected in 2019, recruited by Gilhooley.
“She’s the one who pulled me in and cajoled me and talked me through it,” said Gilhooley of Edwards’ influence. “I don’t know if I could have done it at the beginning without her. She saw potential in me, and that meant a lot to me.”
Kaluzny was instrumental in recruiting both Hendricks and Narimatsu.
“We inspire each other,” said Hendricks. “Women, I think, work actively to support each other and to raise each other up.”
Narimatsu, who has been a leader at her children’s school and joined the recreation board in 2020, was at first reluctant to run for trustee. Seeing people like Kaluzny and Hendricks at the board table “really tamped down my imposter syndrome a little bit.”
“I think women always feel that you have to be overqualified for the position you’re applying for,” said Narimatsu, a University of Michigan graduate with a law degree from Syracuse University who works as a program analyst in the Inspector General’s Office for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“It took a lot for me to get to this point,” Narimatsu said. “I just hope this group inspires people who might be reluctant leaders to come out of the woodwork and join commissions and run for office.”
But making sure women are represented as decision-makers in local government is a primary reason they decided to run for office at the municipal level.
During an interview in Brookfield on May 6, Hendricks pointed out a button she has had pinned to her jacket for the past couple of years. It’s a replica button from the suffragette era, when women – just a century ago, and more than century after the nation was founded – were still fighting for the right to vote.
The pin states, simply, “Votes for Women.”
“It reminds me all the time that this is not a right that we’ve had forever,” Hendricks said.
Gilhooley said she hoped her daughters seeing her in a decision-making role in their community would serve as an example. Mateo wanted to make that same impression – on boys.
“I think it’s great when the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts come sit in that there will be mostly women sitting there [at the board table],” Mateo said.
As for when one of the villages might see its first-ever female president, that is surely on the way.
“I sure hope it happens soon,” said Mateo, who said her husband, former Riverside Village President Ben Sells, encourages her to think about it on occasion. “But baby steps. I want to see how I am on the village board. Being on an advisory commission is one thing, making these decisions is another.”