Leadership, leverage and laughter: A look at the history and legacy of COWL
The tiny, yet formidable Barbara Flynn Currie shimmying across a stage in an electric blue feather boa. A bring-down-the house riff on Del Shannon’s “Runaway” the year Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley forced the closing of Meigs Field Airport. A still-poignant “Wizard of Oz” theme. And, yes, a lot of pinot grigio.
Want to reminisce more? Check out the 2007 Capitol Capers performance in full here.
At a time before a rancorous partisan divide gripped Illinois and the nation at large, and a pay-to-play corruption probe led to the downfall of some of the state’s biggest power players, a bipartisan women’s group was responsible for bringing Democrats and Republicans together through legislation, advocacy, and hearty laughs at their bi-annual Capitol Capers performance.
The Conference of Women Legislators was formed in 1979 to advance the interests of women at a time when just 27 of them were members of the General Assembly. By 2000, that number had increased to 45 women. Today, it stands at 73, slightly down from an all-time high of 78 during the 102nd General Assembly of 2021-22, records show.
COWL still exists today, but the sold-out Capitol Capers shows are, like Currie’s boa, relics of the past. The organization now mainly focuses on leadership initiatives and scholarships for young and college-aged women, and provides forums to share information on issues including health care, childcare, elder care, the environment, and the budget.
“We’re really working to revive the organization after COVID and so many other changes (in the Legislature),” Democratic Sen. Mary Edly-Allen, current COWL president, said.
“It’s so important to know the organizational history, to know where we came from to know where we’re going.”
A group of about 20 former legislators from across the aisle gathered together in Chicago in late-September to remember the good old days, during a “bipartisan girlfriends brunch” hosted by former Democratic state Rep. Julie Hamos.
The attendees included former Republican Reps. Patti Bellock, Elizabeth Coulson, Eileen Lyons, Ruth Munson, Suzie Basi and Andrea Moore, former Democratic Reps. Karen May, Elaine Nekritz, Carol Sente, Kathy Ryg, Deborah Graham, as well as Currie. Republican state Sen. Pamela Althoff, former Democratic Senators, Melinda Bush, Heather Steans, Toi Hutchinson, Susan Garrett and current Democratic state Sen. Sara Feigenholtz, who first served in the Illinois House.
The shared commonality for these women: Many hailed from traditionally-independent voting suburban districts, and with that an approach of moderacy on numerous issues, among them, abortion rights – an achievement that seems nearly impossible two decades later.
“We established relationships that made things really positive,” Ryg said. “Knowing we were coming from similar environments.”
That’s a particularly rare thing, Jennifer Morrison, who worked in the gubernatorial administrations of former Governors Jim Thomson and Jim Edgar noted in a recent report, The Value of Collaborative Policymaking: A Perspective from Women Participants in the Illinois General Assembly.
“The real disconnect, the one I had felt and couldn’t articulate for years, was that the goals of (women legislators) were fundamentally different from the goals of the men who created and control the legislative process in Illinois,” she wrote.
What’s more, she posited, ridicule sometimes extended to COWL members from male General Assembly colleagues, “it’s the result of fear. It seems at least possible that male legislators were afraid of the powerful impact of what might happen if the women of both parties coordinated their efforts in the General Assembly.”
Ryg called the years before longstanding state budget impasse, before the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision on reproductive health, before the January 6 U.S. Capitol attack “definitely a more collaborative time.”
And at Hamos’ home, along with the peals of laughter over the late night rehearsals, remembering the time the piano player quit the night before the performance, and roping young staffers into various acts, the COWL reunion also reminisced about the simple satisfaction of getting concrete things done.
“We really appreciated the moment in time we had. What we really remembered was sitting around the table in someone’s office trying to make sense of what we could do to move our agenda with (that year’s) budget,” Ryg said. “You can look back at some of the initiatives – school funding, government efficiency, transit. There was some really good groundwork laid that is still in place today.”
Former COWL members reunite at Julie Hamos’ home in September
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