Don't overlook the women making a difference in Milwaukee
More than 10 years ago, Milwaukee Police Chief Nannette Hegerty was asked by a reporter for an interview on the occasion of her promotion as the department's first female lieutenant. She would have none of it.
She believed -- and still does -- that when a female "first" is highlighted, it makes it seem like an oddity that a woman has achieved something noteworthy. The other side of that argument is that calling attention to a woman's achievements galvanizes those following in her wake that they, too, can scale great heights.
As we pass a milestone this month with the 20th anniversary of Geraldine Ferraro becoming the Democratic vice presidential nominee, it calls to mind those women in Milwaukee who may not get the headlines, but who truly deserve them.
We've often heard about the record number of women in the Wisconsin Legislature -- 37 -- with the state boasting its first female Senate majority leader, first female attorney general and first woman elected lieutenant governor.
But there are women making a difference on the local level like Margaret Henningsen, Shirley Lanier and Deloris Sims, founders of Legacy Bank. The three women brought a center of financial strength and soundness to some of the most underserved communities in the Milwaukee area. Legacy Bancorp is the only bank holding company in the nation organized by African-American women, and has created a much-needed source of capital for the community.
And at two of the city's largest law firms, women are at the helm as managing partners for the first time in both firms' history: Nancy Sennett at Foley and Lardner, and Ann Murphy at Quarles & Brady. Both emphasized at the time of their promotions that they would work to ensure their firms would be places where women and people of color would choose to work. When the two women were hired at their respective firms in 1979, there were fewer than a dozen women practicing in their workplaces. Both can remember when secretaries at law firms didn't want to work for female lawyers.
Unfortunately for the first time in years, there are no women currently serving on Milwaukee's Common Council.
In the private sector, Donna Martinez, president of American Ornamental Iron, makes her way quietly in the male-dominated steel business, landing state contracts as well as serving as one of the top suppliers of ornamental iron and steel to Milwaukee's top real estate developers.
Every day, the Wisconsin Women's Business Initiative Corp. helps women to be the stars in their own lives with its incubator program. The economic development corporation provides quality business education and access to capital for women entrepreneurs. Success stories include women who have started technology companies and retail businesses in a world where a woman going for a business loan is still looked at a bit askance by some bank managers.
But while women are filling seats at the state and local level, they are woefully absent in the boardroom, where the real decisions are made. The women who eventually will fill those coveted seats, and who deserve to, aren't the ones who sue for it or who grumble publicly. They are the Hegertys, the Sennetts and the Henningsens -- the women who toil in the background and grab their opportunity when they feel it's their time.
We should celebrate those women we read about. But more important is that we encourage those who blaze their own trail in silence. Even Geraldine Ferraro once had a bit to learn about encouraging women when she told the July 1983 meeting of the National Women's Political Caucus, "There is no way any presidential candidate is going to choose a woman as a running mate."
Anne E. Schwartz is a Milwaukee-area author and writer.
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