By Sarah Settle
The NCSL Women’s Legislative Network is thrilled to announce the winners of the third annual Women in Politics Making a Difference Award.
These female legislators have made an impressive impact in each of their states and local communities through perseverance, collaboration and, most importantly, pursuing their dreams. The Women’s Legislative Network was lucky enough to interview all four of our award winners—check out what makes these women so remarkable!
Representative Amy Loudenbeck, Wisconsin, Republican
Representative Amy Loudenbeck defies stereotypes of what a legislator should be like—a one-time firefighter, avid reader (“I have about 20 books on my nightstand at any time”), outdoorswoman and hobby goat farmer. But her path to the legislature was not that uncommon.
In 2010, Loudenbeck’s district was on hard times—like many places around the country it was in the midst of economic downturn. Loudenbeck was working at the Chamber of Commerce at the time and found herself in Madison at the state capitol when her representative announced he would not be seeking re-election. With a background that included economic development, government relations, advocacy and outreach and a desire to make a career move, Loudenbeck knew she couldn’t let this opportunity pass her by.
In your time as a legislator so far, of what are you most proud?
The cumulative effect of [my] legislation on human trafficking, children and families and other vulnerable populations. We’ve built a great base for new policies to go on.
Child welfare all over the country is being challenged by the opioid epidemic. We are creating good policies that are going to be able to be applied in this ever-evolving space instead of just a knee-jerk reaction. I began working on human trafficking in 2011. We thought, is this really a problem here in Wisconsin? Isn’t that only in Chicago? Is this a priority? Vulnerable accompanied youths and human trafficking isn’t just an urban issue. We had to acknowledge the problem and create urgency while still getting policies right. For example, homeless or unaccompanied youths need parental consent to access mental health services, but you have to balance parents’ rights. How do you balance minor rights and parental rights? I work a lot with advocates on this.
If you could have dinner with anyone in the world that inspires you, alive or deceased, who would it be? What would you ask him or her?
I would have dinner with my mom who passed away a little over five years ago from pancreatic cancer. Yes, she was my mom and of course I miss her and would love to have dinner with her. But she was a true friend, mentor and inspiration to me not only growing up, but as an adult as well.
If I could ask her a question, it would be, "Do you think women are better off and have more opportunities and equality now than they did before and do you think it is because of changes in law or changes in attitude or both?"
My mom grew up on a resort in northern Wisconsin digging worms, cleaning cottages and waiting tables to save money to put herself through college at UW Madison. She worked as a chemist while I was growing up and I know she had challenges working in a profession that was very male dominated. My parents got divorced in 1977, so she was also a single mom which was not very common either. I know she felt a lot of pressure from work and at home—she was truly a trailblazer trying to juggle a lot of responsibilities.
Our family was different—I hardly had any friends with moms that worked full-time and travelled or parents who were divorced—and sometimes it was hard for me to really appreciate how hard she had it. We didn't really struggle financially, although I know she was well-aware she was compensated less for her work than her male counterparts. I know it was hard for her to please everyone and I know it stressed her out, but she did her best. She didn't make cookies for my class on my birthday, but she would come in and do cool science experiments on career day and, looking back, I wouldn't change that. She didn't just inspire me, she encouraged me to do things that maybe were not traditional for women when I was a young adult—like being a volunteer firefighter and getting my hazardous materials manager certification and working in places where there were very few women.
Sometimes people ask me what it's like to work in politics where there aren't as many women as men. Honestly, we have a lot more women in politics now than we ever have. And we have more women in a lot of STEM and other traditionally "male-dominated" professions than my mom did as a chemist, or than I did when I worked in environmental compliance/project management. So I think women are a lot better off now than they were just one generation ago, but I would love to have a nice long, long dinner with my mom to talk about it; and to say thank you for helping to pave the way.
If you were to give advice to young women across the country graduating from high school, what would it be?
Try to make sure you have some money in the bank. Have a safety net so you can make good choices for yourself. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Don’t feel like you have to be locked into one thing. Be open to change and taking risks. Ask friends, family, faith to support you. Sometimes we are afraid to ask for help. No one can do it by themselves.
Don’t be afraid to venture out on your own, but know you can rely on friends and family.
When I came into politics, a journalist pointed out to me that women don’t do economic development. Don’t let anyone pigeonhole you. Women tend to do things they have experience in, but follow your interests. Sometimes it takes someone who isn’t an expert. If you or your district are interested, go for it. Don’t feel like you are limited. To be a better person or legislator, you have to go outside your comfort zone. Do what trips your trigger.
Sarah Settle is staff coordinator for Member Outreach and the NCSL Foundation.