Irene Holinga remembers being told she'd never win election to countywide office.
But in 1978, Holinga became the first woman in Lake County to do so.
“I just thought I could do the job just like anybody else if I worked really hard,” said Holinga, who served 17 years as Lake County treasurer.
Holinga's “first” is one of several milestones made by women elected officials in the region. This year, Karen-Freeman Wilson became the first female mayor of Gary. She leads a city with women in the roles of city clerk, city judge and four out of nine City Council seats.
"You want to have the sense there's no barriers to political involvement," Freeman-Wilson said.
Statewide, women hold 31 percent of elected offices, according to data provided by the Indiana Commission for Women. This year, Kristin Garvey, executive director for the Indiana Commission for Women, said there's interest across the state in getting more women elected.
“Hopefully that will be a good thing,” Garvey said. “If you look at the overall numbers, the numbers aren't that bad. Thirty percent is about the norm when you look worldwide.”
Women elected officials are most prevalent in municipal government, holding 33 percent of seats across the state. However those numbers have fluctuated in the region.
In 2011, Lake County saw a 4 percent increase in women winning election to municipal office, compared to 2007.
But women lost ground in Porter and LaPorte counties in 2011. Both counties saw a 4 percent decrease in the number of women elected, according to the state commission.
“We're not doing as good as I'd like to see us do,” Portage City Council President Sue Lynch said. “Either women are busy working full-time jobs, and it' s a commitment to run for office and then be in office and then they have children and a home to run and everything. Maybe they just feel it's too much.”
A goal of the state commission is to get women to consider running for more “forward-facing positions,” such as mayor and prosecutor. The commission's initial research showed a higher number of women serve in less visible, customer-service offices, Garvey said.
“Getting the party leadership to think of them in those positions would be really important,” Garvey said.
Lake County Democratic Chairman Thomas McDermott Jr. said while the party has no specific programs to recruit women to run for office, it doesn't hurt for candidates.
“In my opinion, we always have very qualified women that run for office,” McDermott said.
The county's Republican Party leader, Kim Krull, said she's tossed around the idea of forming a bipartisan political roundtable to discuss issues women face in politics.
“I just know some of the obstacles I've had to overcome...I look at the people around me and for the most part it's men,” Krull said. “It's men that are having to look up to me as a leader and having to trust my judgment, and a lot of men are skeptical of that.”
On the national level, a record number of women filed to run for the U.S. House in 2012, said Jean Sinzdak, director of the Program for Women Public Officials with the Center for American Women and Politics.
“For the U.S. House, it seems that we'll be going up and potentially hitting 20 percent, right now we're at 17 percent,” Sinzdak said. “There is some positive movement in that way. Could this be another Year of the Woman? We don't know yet.”
For Holinga, the tradition of holding political office was passed on to her daughter, Peggy Holinga Katona, who is now Lake County Auditor.
Katona said her mother's example influenced her decision to seek office.
“I was very proud of her, I used to watch her with ... all the men officeholders and she held her own,” Katona said. “I think she was a model for other women that maybe had political aspirations but never thought they could be in an elected position.”