Dawn Clark Netsch


On Monday night I emailed Dawn Clark Netsch, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1994—the first woman to run here as the nominee of a major party—to ask her why Illinois, along with other big states (New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, California), has never had a female governor. Why, I had planned to ask her, are there only, currently, five women serving as governor, and why are four of them Republicans?* 

It was too late. Netsch lives around the corner,  and when I walked my dog past her house early Tuesday morning I knew something was wrong. It hadn’t made the newspapers at my doorstep,  but as soon as I turned on the radio I heard Netsch had died during the night at the age of 86.

The first person I spoke to after processing Netsch’s death was Siobhan “Sam” Bennett, president and CEO of the Women’s Campaign Fund and the She Should Run Foundation. We might have dedicated our telephone conversation to Netsch, who is precisely the kind of barrier-breaking woman—she took a state senate seat in 1972 from a male machine incumbent and won the state comptroller’s job in 1990, becoming the first woman to be elected to a state-wide office in Illinois—Sam Bennett spends her time trying to persuade to run for governor.

Women need to set their sights on governorships, Bennett says, because they are “pathways to the presidency.” She calls the paucity of women ”the canary in the coalmine.”  

So few women reach the governor’s mansion, Bennett argues, because men want to hold on to their power, especially if their states are big and important: there’s a lot of power to hold.  “In the world’s richest nation, politics is about power, a lot to fight for and lose, the wealthy states have… a lot of power on the table…. Those that run the power systems, largely men, are going to hold on to that power, clutch at it.” She describes competition as “fierce,” and says women get little help from state party systems and other organizations.

Later in the day, I talked by telephone from Springfield to state comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, 69, our state’s only other woman to win her party’s (Republican) nomination to run for governor. She ran unsuccessfully in 2006 against Rod Blagojevich. (Before that, Topinka was the first woman to win the office of state treasurer. )

I asked Topinka why she and Netsch, with whom Topinka served in the state Senate and remembered as “awesome and brilliant,” weren’t able to win their races for governor. “The boys still don’t want us,” Topinka said. “In their minds it’s still, 'Women don’t do these things.  Politics is a man’s job.' Suits like to look at other suits and our suits don’t look like their suits…. The guys weren’t there for me. I wasn’t a member of their club.”

Given that Blagojevich was already ethically tarnished when he ran for reelection, why, I persisted, couldn’t she have beat him anyway. “He had $27 million that he had managed to shake down,” she answered. “It’s very hard to fight $27 million.” She mentioned that Mitt Romney, then chairman of the Republican Governors Association, “basically didn’t do the fundraising for me he had promised to do.” 

For Adrienne Kimmell, who heads the Barbara Lee Family Foundation in Cambridge, Massachusetts and answered my questions via email, voters look differently at the office of governor because it’s the CEO of the state, “the head decision-maker,” and they’re more comfortable with women as “part of a deliberative body” (i.e. the House or Senate).  She adds that voters see women as “outside the old boys’ club,” which can be “at once an asset and an obstacle to women.”  A woman needs to prove to them that “she can get results in the typically male game of politics.” (Consider that California has had movie actors as governors and currently has two female U.S. Senators, but has never had a female governor.) 

Kimmell also notes a recent study (PDF) that puts women in “a double bind.” Voters must see women as both likeable and qualified, which is not the case for men. “Voters said they’ll vote for a man they don’t necessarily like, but not for a woman.”

Back in 1994 when Dawn Netsch was running dead last in the four-way gubernatorial primary—she was seen as a pointy-headed intellectual and the fact that she graduated first in her class at Northwestern Law in 1952 did not work in her favor—what saved her candidacy was a brilliant TV ad showing her shooting pool in a smoky pool hall. The ad married likeability with a “one of the boys” message.

Then there’s the bred-over-centuries problem of self-image. Men look in the mirror and “they’re  acculturated to see a governor,” says Sam Bennett. Women look and don’t see a governor, and, worse yet, “they wait to be asked to run. You have to ask an average American women six times; that means for many it’s 20 times…. There are a wealth of extraordinary women who never think of running and they’re never asked to run.  Men always think of running and they don’t wait to be asked.”

On top of that, says Bennett, men are not expected to have “a lick” of experience in elective office when they run for governor.  Corporate CEO experience is considered suitable, but, she says, “only five percent of CEOs are women.”

Bennett also notes that research shows that “zero percent” of men worry about juggling family responsibilities with the responsibilities of the governor’s office.  For woman “that’s the single biggest concern.  And women worry about media coverage impacting their family.  Not a single man reports that.” 

In the case of Dawn Clark Netsch, she and her architect husband, Walter Netsch, had no children, and he was an exceptionally supportive spouse; he loaned her campaign nearly a million dollars. And when Judy Baar Topinka won her party’s nomination, she was divorced and her only child was grown.  

Both women were hit with sexist, misogynistic slurs and Netsch, 67 when she ran for governor, with ageist ones as well. Netsch looked like a school marm and Topinka like a thrift-shop version of Lucille Ball. “They had me in full accordion, thrift shop mode,” Topinka recalled. “My liking for thrift shops didn’t cost them anything. Rod Blagojevich will continue to cost the state for what he did. My little polka cost them nothing.”

Bennett sounds frustrated, but also hopeful, as 2014 brings 36 open governorships. (There are two governors’ races in 2013, both hot races, in New Jersey and Virginia.) Bennett likes Lisa Madigan’s chances in Illinois because of her “talent and her family,” but won’t go beyond that in making a prediction. 

Bennett’s enthusiasm for what she repeats is “the pathway to the presidency” runs high in her home state of Pennsylvania, where she pronounces the incumbent Republican governor, Tom Corbett, as “remarkably unpopular,” and holds out hope for Democratic congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, who has stated publicly her intention to run for governor. (Schwartz is the only woman in Pennsylvania’s 18 member delegation.)

* Republicans Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Jan Brewer of Arizona, Susana Martinez of New Mexico, and Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, and Democrat Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire. In all of U.S. history there have been only 35 female governors and some of them—Lurlene Wallace, Ma Ferguson,  for example—have taken over from husbands who, for one reason or another, were blocked from running again. The first woman governor not to succeed a husband was Ella Grasso, elected in 1974 in Connecticut.


Photograph: Chicago Tribune