With Hillary Clinton having made a bid for the White House and Nancy Pelosi holding court as Speaker of the House, it might seem that few barriers remain for women with political aspirations. But according to Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics, the statistics are "a cold splash of water to the face." A measly 16.4% of Congress members, less than a quarter of governors and only 15.7% of U.S. mayors are women.
Still, in a handful of cities and towns, women make up the majority of the local government. Take McLean, Texas, a town off Old Route 66 that has a single stoplight. McLean has a female mayor and, despite the gendered nature of the word, a board of aldermen that is half women. In fact, until its most recent election, the board was entirely female. McLean, pop. 830, also has a female postmaster, justice of the peace, newspaper editor and principal of the schools. "We had a previous administration that had internal problems. People around town kept asking me to run," explains mayor Peggy Baer. "We're a community of older folks, and people say old folks don't change, but many of my supporters were older men. They said, 'Let the women run it. They certainly can't do any worse.' "
The women of Casselberry, Fla., had an unlikely inspiration to run for local office: strip clubs. "We'd become known as a red-light district," says vice mayor Colleen Hufford. "All the other cities in our area were flourishing, and we were seeing ours deteriorate." Hufford, with several other women, started holding meetings for community members to discuss the situation. They formed a political action committee and ran candidates for the city commission in 2006. Today, three commissioners are members of the group, and they've brought in a female city manager, city attorney and city clerk. The women have spearheaded an aggressive revitalization project, rezoning to oust adult entertainment, landscaping the town's main thoroughfares and wooing new businesses. "We've turned the city around," says city commissioner Sandra Solomon [the writer's aunt]. Charlene Glancy, another founding member of the political action committee, is running for mayor against the male incumbent and two male challengers. If she wins the Aug. 26 race, Casselberry's government will be almost 90% female.
Walsh, who has worked at the Center for American Women and Politics for nearly 30 years, says Casselberry is a classic model of how women sweep a local government. One of the earliest precedents was in 1920, when the women of Yoncalla, Ore., celebrated winning the right to vote by electing an entirely female municipal government. "These things don't happen without intervention," explains Walsh. "Women often don't feel like they're qualified to run. They probably are, but they need to feel the push of someone asking them to run."
In response to this notion, the Center created a workshop called Ready to Run, a primer on campaigning for women. In New Jersey, where Ready to Run has been operating for 10 years, more than a quarter of the women who've attended the workshop have run for office, and 70% of them won their elections.
Rosanne Foust, the mayor of Redwood City, Calif. where the seven-person city council has four female members says women bring a different quality to city government. "The women and men balance each other," she says. "Women look more at what's not being said, at underlying motivations." Foust, 44, is an unusually young female mayor. Walsh notes that a major reason for women's underrepresentation is that younger women already have the difficult task of balancing work and family; the women who do go into politics tend to do so later in life and thus have shorter political careers. Yvonne Johnson, the mayor of Greensboro, N.C. where six of nine city council members are women has figured out how to do it all. "They tell you being mayor is a part-time job. What a joke," says Johnson, who has four adult children and also directs a nonprofit organization. "I work on the balance all the time."
Walsh notes one final reason women don't run for office as often as men: they haven't had as many role models. In Galveston, Texas, five-sevenths of the city council is female, and Lyda Ann Thomas is the city's third female mayor. "The first was in the 1970s," she says. "I think the male population was a bit surprised at the fact that a lady was elected mayor, but that opened the door for women. Somebody had to start the trend."