Women dominate the state Supreme Court, but gender parity a long way off for other Wisconsin offices

When Rebecca Dallet was elected to the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Tuesday, she gave Wisconsin the honor of having the highest percentage of women on a state Supreme Court.

While the Supreme Court has become increasingly female-dominated over the last decade, other offices haven’t reached representation parity with men.

Emerge Wisconsin is an organization looking to change that, and they’ve been fueled by a post-presidential election wave of enthusiasm. But they’re going up against age-old stigma, Erin Forrest, executive director of Emerge, said on WKOW-TV’s political talk show “Capital City Sunday,” and the simple fact that not as many women run for office.

Emerge Wisconsin helps Democratic women run for office through leadership and campaign training. Women get to learn from experts on topics like public speaking, targeting and talking to the media. About 74 percent of the women trained by Emerge in Tuesday’s election won their races.

The Supreme Court serves as the most impressive example of successful women candidates in Wisconsin. In 2005, women made up 43 of the the state Supreme Court, and in 2017, they made up 71 percent, or five women on a seven-member court. When Dallet joins the bench, the court will be 85.7 percent women.

“It is certainly an area of office where women have made the most progress the most quickly,” Forrest said. “For a very long time (the court was) made up of entirely men, and then almost entirely men and then still mostly men. I don’t think, certainly in our lifetime, we’re going to see that totally reversed. I’d be pretty happy if we could get to parity in other places.”

Those “other places” include lower state courts and the Legislature, where “women are really underrepresented.” In 2017, only 19 percent of the circuit court judges were women and just 25 percent of the state Legislature is female.

When women run for legislative office, Forrest said, they win at the same rates as men, but they don’t run as frequently as men, she said. Women are more likely to try to change the world through nonprofits or other avenues, she said.

But she said that when running for executive offices women do “tend to have a harder time breaking through, and there is still some sexism there. There is some really deeply held, not questioned beliefs … about what leadership is and what leadership looks like.”

Women are more likely to be and vote Democrat, which Forrest thinks is becoming increasingly the case as the Republican party moves further right. “With the tea party revolution,” she said, a lot of women “moved out” of the Republican party.

For an example of the party split, look to the state Senate, where the Democratic caucus is at parity between men and women, Forrest said. After this legislative session, the Republican caucus could have just one woman.

And while there’s been a lot of talk about a “blue wave” of Democratic winners after last week’s election, Forrest said Emerge has “been going really hard since the day after the election in 2016.” Emerge normally trains about 20 to 25 women in a cohort, but last year trained 78 women.

“The whole concept of a wave makes it sound like it’s something that happens to us, but it doesn’t happen without a tremendous amount of work,” she said. “Certainly there’s an enthusiasm gap, that’s pretty clear. Democrats are more motivated … but it doesn’t happen on its own.”