In April, 1983, four months after she moved into the executive mansion on the shores of Lake Mendota, the First Lady of Wisconsin told reporters:
“I am Sheila, not full-time Mrs. Anthony Earl.”
Next April, Sheila Coyle Earl, 47, will host a meeting of governors’ spouses here, where the historic and current roles of those who share state executive mansions will be discussed in various workshops. Considered will be the derivative power of the spouses, what it means, how to deal with it. It is the second such meeting of its kind. The first occurred last May at Harvard.
“We say spouses, for there are two states, Vermont (Madeleine Kunin) and Kentucky (Martha Collins) with women governors,” explained Earl, a tall, energetic woman with salt-and-pepper hair and a career of her own. “As a group we are becoming closer. We have developed our own network. Right now it is an exciting time for spouses who share a unique role.
“I often talk to other governors’ spouses on the phone,” she continued. “You can’t talk to anybody in the state in a similar role. We share experiences. Sometimes we call each other for advice, to get information, or to find out how something is being done in another state.”
Governors’ spouses traditionally gather twice a year at National Governors’ Assn. meetings. While the governors attend business meetings, their spouses usually go shopping and tour museums.
But in Madison next April the conference will be strictly for the spouses. The governors will not be there.
Other governors’ wives in Wisconsin had careers prior to their husbands’ elections, but gave up their jobs upon moving into the executive mansion.
Not Sheila Earl, who is assistant to director of the Robert M. LaFollette Institute of Public Affairs on the University of Wisconsin campus.
“I began working here five years before my husband became governor in 1983. When Tony took office I had no intention of quitting,” she said during an interview in her office at the university think tank.
An increasing number of governors’ wives are pursuing their own careers as the role of women in America changes. Dottie Lamb of Colorado, for example, writes a newspaper column for the Denver Post, makes frequent appearances as an analyst on TV news shows and wrote a book called “Second Banana.”
“Governors’ wives can be involved with their own personal careers, pursue other areas of interest or be uninvolved,” Sheila Earl said. “Some first ladies view their role as purely supportive for their husbands. They don’t have their own agendas. They don’t make public speeches. Some love to be around the executive mansion fussing over flowers, redecorating the place, being totally involved in the social milieu of the position.”
Others, she continued, “are like me and go off to work or devote considerable time and effort to worthwhile programs such as adolescent pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse, child health, refugees, homeless, economic development, peace.”
Sheila Earl attempts to do it all--her full-time job at the LaFollette Institute, supervising the management of the executive mansion, appearing with her husband at key political functions, working on her pet project, Education Equality for Women, and spending time with her four daughters, all currently in college.
Her work day starts at 8 a.m. in the executive mansion where she meets for an hour or two with her assistant, Bonnie Cleary, 41, to review the calendar and take care of correspondence.
Earl’s office at the Robert M. LaFollette Institute is located a short distance from the Capitol on the second floor of a house, the former residence of university presidents.
Wisconsin’s impressive Capitol is
crowned with “Miss Forward,” a three-ton, gilded bronze, 15-foot-tall statue of a woman with a badger, the state animal, perched on her head.
Some of Sheila Earl’s admirers call her “Miss Forward.”
At LaFollette Institute, named in honor of “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, founder of the Progressive Party and three-time Wisconsin governor and later U.S. senator, Earl is internship and placement coordinator.
Her job is to match students who are working on their master’s degrees in public policy and administration with state and local government offices where the students work part time.
She also heads the annual LaFollette Lecture Series, selecting speakers and making arrangements for their appearances on campus. On her wall is a signed photograph of vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, a LaFollette lecturer last December who stayed with the Earls at the governor’s mansion during her visit to Wisconsin.
The LaFollette Institute is a think tank which studies ways to make government work better. There is a longstanding tradition of close cooperation between the Wisconsin state government and the University of Wisconsin dating back to LaFollette. The relationship is known as the Wisconsin Idea.
“Work is something that gives me a personal sense of identity and self - esteem,” said Earl, who puts in 40 hours a week at the institute.
In addition to her full-time job, Earl spends a lot of time speaking to groups about her favorite subject, Education Equality. She frequently addresses young women in high schools and colleges.
“I speak to average homemakers in the same boat as I was raising my four daughters,” Earl said. “I urge them to make sure their daughters are properly preparing themselves for the future.
“Societal tradition is girls don’t study math and science yet they have the potential in those and other fields but are not using it. It is a shame many young women are not developing their talents, not preparing to make a decent living for themselves.”
Given the high divorce rate in the United States, Earl contends it is imperative young women prepare for careers. “They can’t be satisfied with simply wanting to be a wife and mother. I put all my available energies in trying to effect change in attitudes.
“It is sad but true, most people of my generation expected to do better than the previous generation. But our children cannot have that expectation,” she said.
Sheila Coyle grew up in a working-class neighborhood in South Chicago. Neither of her parents graduated from elementary school. They were immigrants from Ireland.
Their daughter graduated from St. Xavier College for Women in Chicago where she majored in philosophy. Anthony Earl was a student at the University of Chicago law School when they met. After graduation, he spent four years in the Navy. They were married when he was still in the Navy. He was 26; Coyle was 24.
They moved to Wausau, Wis., where Earl became city attorney. He was later elected to the state Legislature and served as majority leader.
While raising their daughters, Julia, 22, Anne, 20, Maggie, 19, and Kitty, 18, Sheila Earl started working part time in 1974 with mentally ill and dyslexic children at a local health center.
“My husband ran unsuccessfully for state attorney general. We needed extra income,” recalled Earl who later ran the successful re-election campaign of U.S. Rep. Robert Kastenmeier.
Three of her daughters are enrolled at the University of Wisconsin and live at the family home in Madison. One daughter goes to school in Minnesota.
“At first three of the girls lived in the executive mansion, but didn’t like it and moved back into our home,” their mother explained. “Julia, the oldest, never lived in the governor’s mansion. If she had her way, the official residence would be turned into a center for El Salvador refugees.”
For some, Earl observed, “being a governor’s wife can be a lonely existence. Obviously, that is not the case for me.”
She and her husband have little private time together, she admits. “We cannot go into a restaurant anywhere in Wisconsin and enjoy each other’s company. People keep coming up to our table. Governors and their spouses have to leave the state for privacy.
“Tony gets away with his buddies on a hunting and fishing trip up in the North Woods from time to time,” she continued. “The only time we have had to ourselves since he became governor was when he went on a state mission to Israel and we followed it with five days together, by ourselves, in Greece last summer.”
The Earl family tries to spend Sundays together, gathering for brunch in the executive mansion.
“Sundays were always sacred. I would cook for all of us,” Sheila Earl recalled. “Even that is falling by the wayside more and more.”