Master of Arts (MA)
Semester of Degree Completion
Andrew D. McNitt
This study of female representation in the Illinois General Assembly examines 33 general assemblies, beginning with the 53rd General Assembly – election year, 1922 – at which time the first woman was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives. Trend lines are used to describe changes in female representation over the 64-year period. The effect of changes in the electoral system and the institutional structure are examined. Social and demographic characteristics of women legislators in Illinois are discussed. This data is then compared to data on legislators elected to the 83rd General Assembly.
Over the 64-year period covered in this study only 83 women have been elected to the Illinois General Assembly. Between 1922 and 1986, ten (10) women have served in the Illinois Senate; sixty-two (62) have served in the Illinois House of Representatives and eleven (11) women have held office in both chambers. Thus, overall, women have occupied 21 seats in the Senate and 73 seats in the House of Representatives.
Since 1922, women have achieved legislative seats in every subsequent session of the legislature. Initially, the numbers of women legislators were minimal, but their presence yielded a stable base for future progress. Only since the 1970’s have women realized a substantial growth in their numbers of legislative seats. The last decade of Illinois politics has witnessed steadily increasing levels of female representation at the State House in Springfield. The election of 1972 was a turning point in the representation of women in the legislature. From this point, the ranks of women legislators grew exponentially. As of the 1986 election, women comprised 18% of the total General Assembly membership, which was slightly higher than the national average of 15.8%. Today, women legislators are entrenched in both houses of the Illinois General Assembly.
Fifty (50) of the 83 women elected have been Republicans and the remaining 33 have been Democrats. Sixty percent (60%) of all women elected to the General Assembly thus far have been Republicans. The most recent election of this study, the 1986 election, is characterized by a significant levelling-off in the disproportionate ratio of Republican women to Democrat women. Although it is too early to state definitively, it appears that the level of female representation in the state legislature is becoming similar for both political parties.
When compared to their male counterparts, women legislators in Illinois are similar in regard to both ascribed and achieved characteristics. The results of this study point to an ever-increasing likeness between men and women state legislative elite in Illinois. Based upon the findings for the Illinois General Assembly, it is apparent that the political opportunity structure is more open to women than ever before. To some extent (although not an “equal” or proportional extent), women share in the power of the once exclusively-male legislature.
Helmke, Juliana J., "Female Representation Among State Legislative Elite: The Illinois General Assembly 1922-1986" (1989). Masters Theses. 2423.