Women's Influence Felt Mainly in Social Issues Men Hold Most Government Purse Strings

Article excerpt

Although women make up one fourth of the Illinois Legislature, they comprise up to 80 percent of membership on legislative committees dealing with social services, health, children and other areas traditionally labeled as "women's issues."

Few women - none, in some cases - serve on traditionally high-powered committees that deal with finance, insurance, pensions and parliamentary control of the Legislature.

But if there's gender-based pigeonholing going on in Springfield's power structure, much of it is being brought about by women themselves. They tend to request the committee assignments geared toward social issues. Some say that that has put a spotlight on issues previously ignored by state leaders. Others warn that it has kept women out of some of the most important corners of government. "Women are more involved in family, child care and welfare areas of government. The men seem to be involved in the big-item issues, such as appropriations," said Sen. Evelyn Bowles, D-Edwardsville. "I don't know what the reluctance is to try to branch out." In Illinois government, as in Congress and most states, the legislative process begins in committees, which are small groups of legislators that consider any bills within a given subject area before they can be voted on by the full Legislature. Most of the real work - and the real power - in the Illinois Legislature is found in the 31 House and 17 Senate committees. Legislators request what committees they would like to serve on, so the fact that women are not generally on what some consider to be "men's committees" could be a sign of a self-segregation, said Luellen Laurenti, a lobbyist for the National Organization for Women. Women usually choose committees that deal with issues they are familiar with, Bowles said. "Maybe they're just more comfortable in the typical areas of interest. They know about having a family and kids," Bowles said. Long-time Illinois Rep. Wyvetter Younge, D-East St. Louis, said it's important for women to continue to show strong support for child and health-related committees because these are the issues women introduced when they started serving in the Legislature. "When I first started in 1975, it was a curious thing to have women in the Legislature," she said. "We were among the first group of women legislators. It was an emotional and cultural shock to have well-educated and well-trained women in government. But we women brought up these issues that weren't being discussed." Missouri Is Similar In the Missouri Legislature, the same practice prevails. In the Missouri House, only one woman serves on the Insurance Committee, while women comprise almost 70 percent of both the Children, Youth and Families Committee and Social Services Committee. Missouri Rep. Joan Bray, D-University City, said that with so few numbers, women cannot be represented on every committee and want to serve in areas that haven't gotten enough attention, such as children and welfare issues. …