Path to power: Women rise in politics 100 years after suffrage
Michelle Buckwalter-Schurman ’92 grew up in a family where women ran small businesses. So it struck her, to put it mildly, as “very odd” when she learned as an adolescent that women not that long ago didn’t have voting privileges.
Buckwalter-Schurman has worked for more than a decade to get women elected to office. She notes with satisfaction how the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, finally became ratified.
The youngest member of the Tennessee House of Representatives supported the change because his mother had asked him to “be a good boy” and vote yes.
A political science graduate, Buckwalter-Schurman is a practicing attorney in Morrison. She was admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1995, and now handles divorce, paternity, adoption and guardianship cases.
At the same time, she has served as first vice president of the National Federation of Republican Women since January 2018.
The organization recruits and supports women to run for office as a Republican candidate. She was previously a two-term president of the Illinois Federation of Republican Women, serving from 2012 to 2016.
“I felt really strongly that I’d finally found a place where there were intelligent women who knew the issues—and were willing to listen to the other side,” she said, “Right now, the way politics is, it seems like there are a lot of people not listening. I think maybe those in office are acting as though we’re not listening. But at the base, I have really good friends who are heavy, strong Democrats. When we sit down and have a conversation, we have a lot in common. We have a lot of things we agree on.”
Such bipartisan partnerships are just one positive Buckwalter-Schurman identifies in the world of politics today —100 years since passage of the 19th Amendment by Congress.
It was approved in the House in May 1919, and by the Senate one month later. The centennial of the amendment being made law comes in November 2020. Women have gone on to do much more than just vote in the past century, taking leadership roles across the country. A record number of females were elected to Congress in 2018 and, largely because of that, a record number of women are now serving in Congress. Moreover, the 2018 elections resulted in a record number of women serving in state legislatures across the country.
At the same time, it took nearly 100 years for a woman to be elected Speaker of the House—with Nancy Pelosi taking the position in 2019—and female presidential candidates have not won election.
That fact does not discourage Buckwalter-Schurman from encouraging women to step to the forefront in the political world.
Her own leadership desire and skills were honed while at Illinois State. She was a co-founder of the Phi Alpha Delta pre-law fraternity at the University. She credits ISU for providing a “great blend of being able to learn the academics, but get a real-life exposure to it too.” She explains her ability to move up the ranks in the Federation of Republican Women is partly due to being politely candid.
“I’m never afraid to tell somebody my opinion, but not in an insulting way toward them. That can be somewhat unusual for women. Sometimes we sugar-coat things, or don’t say things as directly as they need to be said. What people have told me is they feel a very genuineness to me,” said Buckwalter-Schurman, who is motivated “to take care of business that needs to be done.”
In terms of her work getting women elected, Buckwalter-Schurman is proudest of National Federation of Republican Women “strike forces“ that work for GOP candidates in competitive races around the country.
“We can look at those counties in which we walked precincts, we had rallies, and see that those numbers turn to our candidates’ favor,” she said.
As for progress women have made since gaining the right to vote, Buckwalter-Schurman cited the U.S. Supreme Court having three female justices, and the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee as evidence of growing influence.
“It was important for women that Hillary Clinton got the nomination,” she said. “I didn’t see her as the right person, but I think that helped women. Certainly we can’t ignore that just because we’re Republicans. That was important.”
Even with several females running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Buckwalter-Schurman said more needs to be done to get women in both parties to seek public office.
“Men get up in the morning and look in the mirror and say, ‘I think I’m going to be president.’ A woman has to be asked multiple times to run,” she said.
“But we’re getting away from that, and we’re also doing a good job of other women saying to women ‘You are qualified; not only should you run, but I will support you.’
“Women need to continue to encourage each other and try not to be competitive with each other. Women need to straighten each other’s crown without telling them it was crooked,” she added. “Just continue to feel a sisterhood. You don’t have to agree with another woman’s decisions completely, but if you believe in 80 percent, that’s good enough. Let’s foster her leadership skills. Let’s help her.”