This one’s for the ladies.

On September 10th of 2002, I was in my car on the way to the Peggy Rosenzweig for Senate victory party. Rosenzweig, a moderate Republican incumbent who had spent 20 years in the Legislature, was being challenged in a primary by the more conservative Tom Reynolds, who had previously run for Congress several times. I called ahead to one of her campaign staffers to see how the party was going. “Turn around,” he said. “We just lost.”

The early 2000s were good to GOP women. In 2002, the majority of Republican state senators in Wisconsin were female. In January of 2003, Mary Panzer became the state’s first female majority leader. Margaret Farrow became the state’s first female Lieutenant Governor in 2001. In 2002, 12 women held Assembly seats. Yet Rosenzweig’s loss was a harbinger of things to come. (A full list of women who have served in the Wisconsin Legislature can be found here. A full list of women who won’t answer my daily e-mails can be found here.)

In 2008, the landscape for Republican women looks entirely different. With the retirement of long-time Republican State Senator Carol Roessler, the number of female senators has dwindled to three – five fewer than held office just seven years ago. And of those three that remain, two (Sheila Harsdorf and Alberta Darling) are priority targets for the Democrats in the upcoming November elections. With the announced retirement of three female representatives, the Assembly is down to six Republican women. Not since my debut as a Chippendale’s dancer has an establishment seen so many women fleeing the premises. (I used to run on stage nude, while women threw money at me to put my clothes back on. It was lucrative, to say the least.)

During this year’s state Republican Convention, took a straw poll of potential GOP candidates for both governor and U.S. senator. There were zero female names on the list, despite names like Rick Graber, Mark Neumann, Scott Klug, and Tim Michels making the cut. High profile female legislators like Kitty Rhoades (the chair of the Legislature’s most powerful committee) and Leah Vukmir (chair of the Assembly Health Committee) weren’t even considered. With all due respect to Neumann and Klug, neither of them have held elected office in a decade. Exactly what does one have to do to get their name off the Republican VIP list? Would two decades do it? Perhaps the GOP should just dig up the skeleton of Lucius Fairchild and run him in 2010.

Some would suggest the dwindling number of GOP women is a conspiracy by the “old boys” network to keep “the ladies” out of power. The fact that primaries were run against Rosenzweig and Panzer, both moderates and both defeated by men, gives these conspiracy theorists the ammunition they need. It more likely speaks to the general impression, whether fair or not, that Republican women tend to be more moderate. The fact that Rosenzweig and Panzer were challenged likely spoke more to voters’ frustration over spiraling taxes than the fact that they were women. But the liberal stereotype attached to their gender probably didn’t help them in their heavily conservative districts.

It is perhaps more likely that, with the Legislature’s approval rating hovering just between “warts” and “arsenic,” more women are just deciding that they have better things to do than jump on a sinking ship. After her election in 2002, State Senator Cathy Stepp quickly grew tired of the endless meetings and pointless time-wasting that occurred at the Capitol. As the owner of a private business, Stepp was frustrated by the inefficiency of the legislative process, which cost her time at home with her young children. Near the end of her tenure, she would pass the time on the floor of the Senate by playing pranks on her colleagues – such as the time she went desk to desk, shocking her fellow senators with a pack of trick electric gum. Stepp left the Senate after serving just one term.

Furthermore, it’s not as if Democrats don’t have their own issues with their female legislators. When the 2007-09 biennial budget passed the Legislature, Senate Democrats immediately dumped their majority leader, Judy Robson, citing the need for “more direct” leadership. Robson immediately charged sexism, believing some of her colleagues simply didn’t want to be led by a woman. (In a blog post, Stepp actually agreed that gender played a part how Robson’s leadership style was portrayed.)

However, Democrats have a slightly better record retaining their incumbent females. When a woman Democrat leaves the Legislature, they’re usually moving up, not out. For instance, Gwen Moore and Tammy Baldwin both left the Legislature to become Wisconsin’s first two female U.S. Representatives. Republican women such as Terri McCormick and Jean Hundertmark left the Assembly to run for higher office, yet both were unsuccessful. As mentioned, Margaret Farrow moved up to become Lieutenant Governor, but her stint with Governor McCallum lasted about as long a trip to a Chinese buffet.

Many conservatives would argue that whether they elect women or not is irrelevant – they want to see a legislator who is more in tune with their vision of smaller government and lower taxes. And if that costs them a moderate Mary Panzer in favor of a more conservative Glenn Grothman, then so be it. In the end analysis, your property tax bill doesn’t care whether your legislator has a Y chromosome. You owe what you owe.

While this point is incontrovertible, it sets up a false choice. Being conservative and being a woman aren’t mutually exclusive. There are women in the Legislature who are conservative and perhaps should be given more of a pulpit to enhance their statewide visibility. And the GOP should be out recruiting more women who can appeal to their right wing base. As mentioned before, when a female legislator does something that strays from the party line, it tends to stick to her more than it would one of her male counterparts. Conversely, many Republican women face harsher Democrat criticism for taking principled conservative votes because they’re “voting against women’s interests.”

Female legislators have flaws, just like male elected officials. And while a representative’s gender is meaningless when it comes to their voting record, there’s no question that women provide a diversity of viewpoint that is needed in the Capitol. It’s not impossible for that viewpoint to be both female and conservative.

Each year in Madison, a local grocery store holds “Bratfest,” which they brag is the “World’s largest sausage festival.” Unfortunately, this year Bratfest will be bumped to number two, just behind the Wisconsin Legislature.

-May 19, 2008

(Christian Schneider spent eight years working in the State Legislature, where he worked for three different women.)