“Be willing to say yes and work hard,” is just some of the advice that Terri Bryant and Barbara Brown give women aspiring to be political leaders.1 Women in politics is not just a good thing, it is an amazing thing; according to Bryant and Brown who are active members of their respective parties. Wonderful things happen when women get involved; all that is necessary to get involved is a willingness to say yes and work hard.
Bryant is president of the Lincoln Series for Excellence in Public Service (Lincoln Series) and an active member of the Republican Party. As president of the Lincoln Series, Bryant encourages women to seek roles in political leadership. Bryant’s political experience encompasses service as precinct committeewoman, candidate for the Jackson County Board, and delegate to the Republican National Convention this past year.
Brown currently serves as the Circuit Clerk of Randolph County, a board member of the Illinois Women’s Institute for Leadership (IWIL), and an active member of the Democratic Party. Like Bryant, as a board member of IWIL, Brown encourages women to seek roles in political leadership. Brown’s political experience includes representation of the 12th Congressional District on the Illinois Democratic State Central Committee since 1990; she also served as Deputy Chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois from 1990-1994 and currently serves as Vice-Chair of DPI. From 1978-1994 she served as the Randolph County Democratic Chairwoman; and Brown was the Democratic candidate for the State Senate seat from the 58th District in 1996, and 1998.
It is important for women to run for public offices. As Brown focused on the statistical aspect, she noted that more women register, and turn out to vote. In 2010, the voting rate was 46% for women compared to 45% for men.2 Many women come out to show their support only to be disappointed by the low numbers of women willing to run. Further, Brown stated “when women do run, they win as often as men.” Historically, politics is not a woman’s world; and neither is the Illinois Department of Corrections where Bryant is responsible for the dietary needs of a prison. Since Bryant got her start some 30 years ago as the first women guard, she has been relating women in politics to corrections.
Additionally, Bryant points out, women bring different things to the table in comparison to their male counterparts; the genders are naturally wired differently. “The fact is men typically think linearly, while women customarily multitask,” stated Bryant. The success of women in politics boils down to their ability to multitask. Bryant uses her mother as an example; her mother would change diapers, cook bacon, and answer the phone all while having a conversation with her husband. Further, “women are consensus builders,” said Bryant. She asserts that women are taught from an early age to get along with others and are instinctively good at bringing people together. Brown, from a statistical perspective, indicated that female members of Congress bring the most legislation; women get more things done then men. Bryant elaborates that as leaders it is important to remember how valuable consensus is.
In Bryant’s opinion, women are perceived as the cleaner and more likeable political candidate. This perception is extremely important in the political process and can be attributed in part to the fact that women don’t throw as much “mud” in public. To the public, perception is everything; the only other thing you need to be successful is a love/passion for government or a particular issue. Bryant has always been interested in politics. From the age of four or five, Bryant had a passion that she describes as “weird” for a child. She remembers watching Walter Cronkite on the news at five years old; and reminisces of when Nixon and Agnew resigned. Bryant was at a baseball game in the sixth grade when she heard the news of the resignation. She quickly gathered up her things, remembering always having all the sports equipment, and went home to watch the news.
The most difficult hurdle to overcome in seeking a political office seems to be the first step. Because women compartmentalize things, they tend to wait to be asked to run for office. Some men on the other hand just wake up and decide, “I’m going to run for office.” For Bryant, who was raised by her grandmother and single mother, she decided it was time to stop only having strong opinions and feelings, and go do something about it. She got her start when she was asked to run for precinct committeewomen. At first she said no, but ultimately ran contested and lost. As all great women, Bryant didn’t let this discourage her.
Bryant advises aspiring women leaders to say “yes,” when they are asked to do something. Women tend to be insecure and discount their qualifications. She advises that if someone is asking you to do something, then the person thinks you are competent. In addition to saying yes, work hard, it is important to do your best at anything you do. It was because Bryant said yes and worked hard that she was able to achieve her accomplishments and position at the Lincoln Series. A piece of advice Bryant has held onto from her mother is to “act like you are supposed to be there and nobody will know the difference.”
Bryant and Brown also advises women to “remember the people who got you there” as you make your way through the political process. To be successful, surround yourself with qualified people; they will not only make you look good, but they will also tell you when you are wrong. Many people make the mistake of surrounding themselves with people who make them “look good” or feel smarter. It is important to find people who are smarter, better, and loyal to you. Additionally, don’t wait for someone to come to you! Find a model and go to them. It is important to be proactive.
Practically, volunteer for a campaign. You won’t find a perfect candidate, but find someone you have something in common with. Sometimes, for Bryant, it is enough for the candidate to be a women and a Republican. In addition, be places; people have to see you. Volunteer if you have to, and be at as many events as you can be. You want people to say “who is that?” in a good way. This brings us back to perception and Bryant’s mother’s advice. If you’re at everything, people think you are someone; “act like you are supposed to be there and nobody will know the difference.” Lastly, be careful what you attach your name to. You are who you are, stand firm in what you believe, and be sure that whatever you put your name on you will be okay with it at any point throughout your life.
Finally, get involved in the Lincoln Series or IWIL. These programs are designed to help get women started in politics. Illinois is a big state, and there is a big difference even within the parties. The Lincoln Series is dedicated to increasing the number of Republican women in office in the state of Illinois. This program lasts several months with a class each month. The classes move around the state; the first class is the nuts and bolts of the Republican Party; the second, follows women in the legislature. Application forms are due July 1, and interviews are given in October/November.3 Alternatively, IWIL is open to all Illinois Democratic women who have a commitment to serve in public office and a willingness to commit the time necessary to participate fully. The curriculum is designed to meet several goals such as techniques of conducting effective campaigns and understanding the institutions of government and public policy. The application process begins in July with a mid-September deadline followed by personal interviews.4 ■