On her shoulders: a pioneering woman in Wisconsin politics

In 2020, let’s celebrate the hard work of women like Becky Young, and all those who support them, too.

"Women's History Month" by US Department of State is licensed under CC BY 2.0

One of my fondest memories from 2019 was attending a book launch for Rebecca Young, A Life of Civic Engagement and Progressive Electoral Politics, about a remarkably ambitious and successful Wisconsin politician. Becky Young ran for office twelve times between 1970 and 1996, including positions on the county board, school board and seven terms in the Wisconsin state Assembly — winning every single election.

Motivated by a progressive agenda, she advocated for women and children, education and environmental issues, successfully collaborating with colleagues across the political spectrum. A year after being elected to the State Assembly in 1970, she convinced Dane County’s conservative administrator George Reinke to declare an “Un-Car” day.

Now, at the beginning of 2020, the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, and an election year with more U.S. women in the electoral mix than ever before, Young’s story illuminates the multiple dimensions of women’s struggle to succeed in politics.

Young’s biography was written and self-published by her husband, Crawford Young, who began the book in 2011, two years after she died from cancer. The book event was held this past July in downtown Madison. U.S. Rep. Gwendolyn Moore (D-Milwaukee) and state Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison), who’d both worked with Young, spoke to the audience about Young’s talents.

‘Abrasive’ and ‘wordy’

“Becky wanted to get things done,” said Taylor. “She loved strategy. She had a strong group of women she worked with, and lived like there would be no obstacles.”

Moore spoke of the depth of Young’s wisdom, saying, “she knew every crook and cranny of the legislative process.”

Crawford Young talked about his research for the book, including his surprise at the number of letters he encountered in Becky’s files from “friends,” suggesting that she not run for office. Some people said she was too abrasive, he noted, while others remarked on being put off by her “wordy forcefulness.”

Thankfully, she ignored the advice. Young was a skilled politician, learning the facts and building coalitions to successfully accomplish goals, and she went about this process no holds barred.

She set an example that clearly inspired as many as it unnerved. As Moore put it, “Becky Young taught me how to have a spine.”

Young’s struggle

Beyond the accolades, the details of Young’s struggle resonated with me. Her story was a reminder of familiar challenges, and the important lifting power of a strong network behind anyone who strives. There’s a tendency, when talking about women’s professional accomplishments, to describe successive “waves” of progress, with each generation superseding the battles of the previous ones. We can build on and feel empowered by previous successes, but only by knowing more intimately the personal sacrifices and team efforts behind them.

Becky Young faced obstacles of multiple dimensions. One shared story described her frustration at being shut out of after-hours, all-male gatherings of Democratic legislative colleagues in an undisclosed location somewhere in the State Capitol. She finally succeeded in figuring out where it was being held and crashed the event, showing up with a cheap box of wine and joining in as if she’d been invited. And throughout her career she continued to navigate around comments of even supporters who somehow felt she needed to be told she was too “forceful” or “confrontational.” The stereotype of strong women as strident and jarring was in full force.

An impressively determined woman for her time, Young not only took on the challenges of public life and service, she was also solely in charge of a household, including a family of four daughters. When her similarly ambitious husband reported to her that his year-long research appointment in Africa had been extended for a second year—she was at that point about to be appointed by the governor to the state highway commission—she described the news to relatives as “a terrific let-down.”

In the biography of his wife, Crawford Young obliquely reveals how his own professional decisions were a burden to the family. He shares quotes from his daughters describing taking on extra chores and feeling heightened tensions, as well as his dawning recognition that his household obligations might extend “beyond the usual male domains of lawn mowing and snow removal.” He described Becky Young’s strong network of women, including the “Bad Weather Good Pie” book group, in which there was endless discussion of strategy.

Hidden networks of support

It seems important to me that we remember and share these detailed stories. No one succeeds on their own, of course, and in politics, where we vote for an individual and are forever seeking a heroic savior figure, the contributions of the supportive network are often obscured.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) spoke recently about her own compulsion to participate in Congress, “The thing that gives me the courage is knowing the story of my own mother, my grandmother, my family, and feeling as though if we don’t step up no one else will. It doesn’t even feel like a choice,” she said.

Like many women, Becky Young’s initial catalyst into politics was joining a fight to protect her children’s neighborhood school.

The elections of 2018 were groundbreaking in featuring so many female candidates. But clearly, there’s a lot of work to do. While women make up just over half the population, they remain less than one-third of all elected officials. And the gains were frighteningly uneven—while there are 106 Democratic women in Congress, there are only 21 Republican congresswomen. Those women in public office are more than twice as likely as men to experience psychological abuse and almost three times as likely to experience physical violence (although not more likely to report it).

Still, a record number of women, and women of color, serve in Congress, in state legislatures, and in statewide elected executive offices nationwide. There’s even promise that we might move beyond some of the stereotyping in the mainstream media coverage of women politicians that still asess female candidates along a spectrum that runs from shrill to aggressive.

I am grateful that Crawford Young was motivated to commemorate his partner of so many years with a book honoring her work. He heralds Becky Young’s accomplishments as a critical part of the story of women’s progress over these last 100 years. The book shares multiple dimensions of her struggle, including the sacrifices and contributions of her family and supporters, all of which help us understand something of her remarkable drive and success.

That sounds like a feminist win to me.