This year has been record-breaking for the Wisconsin state government, with 31% of legislators identifying as women, according to the Labor Reference Bureau. Yet nationally, Wisconsin lags behind other states, ranking 22nd in its proportion of female state legislators. The members of Wisconsin Women in Government are working to fix this by encouraging young women to follow their political aspirations and career goals.
Crystal Potts and Kathy Blumenfeld — two women working in Wisconsin government — are on opposite ends of the political spectrum and come from very different backgrounds. Potts is the director of state relations for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She previously worked for the Republican Party of Wisconsin and as chief of staff for state Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green). Blumenfeld spent the majority of her career in the private sector but now serves in Gov. Tony Evers’ cabinet as the Secretary of the Department of Financial Institutions.
“Other than being a wife, mother, family member and friend, [being a woman in government] is everything to me because it is where things happen,” Potts said.
Despite their differing political ideologies, Potts and Blumenfeld agree that politics needs more racial and gender diversity. They both said that the Democratic and Republican parties are not doing enough to recruit underrepresented groups to government. As an Asian American woman who works in government, Potts said that race is a “deeply personal” subject to her.
“I think that there are assumptions made about people of color and where they land on the political spectrum. I don't see a real authentic effort made by either political party to reach out to women of color and communities of color,” Potts said. “Like why are you reaching out? It's because you want my vote, right? You want my support, but what is it exactly that you care about that you know is related to that part of me?”
Blumenfeld said the lack of diversity in politics is “fixable.” She credited Evers for his “real tangible efforts” to improve inclusion in government, using his cabinet as an example of gender diversity.
“Nearly half of our cabinet is women. We all meet regularly every month, and we call ourselves the cabinet sisters,” Blumenfeld said.
In 2019, Gov. Evers signed Executive Order #59 which created the Governor’s Advisory Council on Equity and Inclusion. The council advises state government officials on ways to “improve equity and inclusion for Wisconsinites across the state and in all sectors.” The order also requires state agencies to develop equity and inclusion action plans. According to Blumenfeld, the Department of Financial Institutions has its own equity and inclusion team that trains and educates its employees.
Women’s self-perceptions may prevent them from entering politics. The UW-Madison Division of Extension found that women ran for political office less often than men because of a combination of perceived and systemic barriers. Perceived barriers, such as a lack of self-confidence or worries about time away from family, play a larger role than systemic barriers in keeping women out of political office.
“I think that whether it's Democrat or Republican, I just like seeing women in politics. I think that there's a perception issue that it is a man's world, and that it is a man's place to make those types of decisions,” Potts said.
The Division of Extension’s study concludes that women are more likely to advocate for family issues while in office than men, stating that it is “critical” that women’s voices are heard in the political process. As a young mother raising two sons, Potts said she is “very privileged” because of her job’s flexibility and her husband’s commitment to equal co-parenting. She recognizes that other mothers may not have the same level of support and may be forced to stay home and not pursue their careers. According to Potts, until the gender composition of government changes, politics will continue to be dominated by policies that “do not include women at the table.”
Potts and Blumenfeld are both involved with Wisconsin Women in Government (WWIG), a bi-partisan volunteer organization that provides scholarships and mentorship services to young women interested in careers in public service.
According to WWIG board member and communications director for the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services Jennifer Garrett, the non-profit issues scholarships for young women to attend Badger Girls State, a leadership and government conference for high school girls, as well as scholarships for undergraduates studying government-related fields.
Garrett’s favorite part of WWIG is that it provides a space for women across the political spectrum to come together and work collaboratively on projects. Blumenfeld, who also serves on WWIG’s board, joined the non-profit as a way to pass on her expertise to young women in the early stages of their political careers.
“I feel like I have a heavy weight on my shoulder to help make it easier for those behind me,” Blumenfeld said. “I am involved with Wisconsin Women in Government because I know that it is a place where I can influence and help.”
Looking to the future of women in politics, Potts, Blumenfeld and Garrett said that more progress needs to be made in order to reach gender parity in government. Potts encourages young women to go forth with confidence in their political careers.
“Jump in. You are well equipped,” Potts said. “Your voice is so valuable and it is valued in this process. Don't ever let anyone make you think or make you feel otherwise because we are the future.”