Women Mayors Pushing for More Power Among Peers

The U.S. Conference of Mayors is the spawning ground for many a state and national public office holder. However, too few women hold leadership posts in the group and the push is on to make a change.

Mayor Sue Bauman

MADISON, Wis. (WOMENSENEWS)-She doesn't want to sound sexist, but Mayor Catherine Melchert believes that women mayors do their jobs a bit differently than do their male counterparts.

“I think that women probably bring the hearts and souls out of our community a little more,” Melchert, the mayor of Bartlett, Ill., told a panel of her peers at an early-morning meeting of women mayors at the U.S. Conference of Mayors earlier this month.

About 50, or about 17 percent, were women were among the approximately 300 mayors attending mayors' meeting last week. More than 1,000 mayors are members of the mayors' conference and about 20 percent are women. The conference conducts leadership training for its members and works to strengthen cooperation between officials at the city, state and national levels.

Melchert and many other women mayors believe to win and retain public office they have to put greater emphasis on their strengths as problem solvers. And one of their big problems now is the lack of women in the leadership ranks of the mayors' conference. While women do have leadership positions within the mayor's conference, their numbers are smaller than many members of the conference would like them to be. The paucity of females in leadership does not bode well for women who are trying to leverage their experience as mayors to run for state or national posts.

The issue is one of concern to the Women Mayors' Caucus, a group within the mayors' conference designed to encourage women mayors to fully develop their leadership roles. The caucus was founded in 1983 by now-U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein when she was mayor of San Francisco, but her rise in politics has been the exception rather than the rule among women mayors.

Mayor Thalia Kay of Pemberton, N.J., said that while the women mayors had done much to change the reality of the “good ol' boys' club,” the fact that there had only been three women to serve as president of the 70-year-old mayors' conference was troubling. Not until 1981 was a woman-then-Mayor Helen Boosalis of Lincoln, Neb.-elected the first female president of the group.

“We've got to do something,” Kay said. “Wherever you go, people will still rush to shake your husband's hand and say, ‘Mayor.'”

11 Women Are Among 52 Conference Leaders

Four women mayors serve as trustees on the conference's 22-member executive committee and eight women-one of whom is stepping down at the end of the month-serve on the 30-member advisory board. The president of the group must serve first on the advisory board and then move to the executive committee in order to even have a chance of being elected president. Both the committee and the board are the starting point for the mayors in determining their public policy positions and lobbying efforts in Washington. Getting to know representatives on Capitol Hill is often a boon to mayors who later run for Congress.

J. Thomas Cochran, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, told the women that they must run for key positions within the mayors' conference to ensure that the group's leaders represent its membership.

“While we're doing homeland security, there are other things we have to do to keep this nation strong and keep cities strong,” Cochran said. “We need good women on our board.”

Members at the meeting elected Shelia Young, mayor of San Leandro, Calif., as the caucus interim chair. Her hometown is in Alameda County, across the bay from San Francisco. Mayor Sara Bost of Irvington, N.J., stepped down from the position as chair with a year to go in her term and decided not to run for re-election as mayor. Bost, the first African American to chair the women's caucus, made her decision to retire from both positions following federal corruption charges brought against her earlier this year. Bost has entered a not guilty plea and the trial date is uncertain.

Others who attended the meeting said it was difficult to juggle the demands of public life with family and that taking on another role would only exacerbate that problem. Kay noted that some women officeholders step down when they believe they have accomplished what they set out to do when they ran for office.

“I think we're more focused on how we get it done rather than power brokering,” Kay said.

Women Mayors Needed to Connect with Women in Congress

Still, women mayors who talk with their counterparts in state and federal government about common policy goals are more likely to rise through the ranks of the mayoral leadership, Cochran said. The mayors' conference often takes stances on urban issues that can have a great impact on the state or federal level, he said.

“We need to get back a strong relationship with women senators and House members,” Cochran said. “I think if we've got 40 or 50 women mayors working with 13 senators we'll get something done.”

Mayor Thalia Kay, from New Jersey, noted how her former Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman broke the glass ceiling on the state government level there. Whitman is now head of the Environmental Protection Agency for the Bush administration. Kay also noted that longtime N.J. Republican Rep. Marge Roukema is retiring this year, thinning the ranks of women politicians in the state.

Similar to the mayor's conference, not enough other women are volunteering to take over the leadership roles, according to Kay.

In addition to encouraging each other to run for leadership positions within the conference, Arlene Mulder, mayor of Arlington Heights, Ill., said women mayors should utilize each other more than twice a year at conference meetings. Part of that ongoing dialogue, she said, should include travel to other cities to discuss strategies against problems in their own cities, including how to run for re-election.

Still, for all that needs to be done, 75-year-old Evelyn Lord, mayor of Beaumont, Texas, remembers when women and politics did not quite mesh the way they do today. Now, Lord says, strong bonds between women mayors have aided women who go from city hall to state politics and even Congress.

“I can remember the time when women did not help each other,” Lord said. “Women back then had to compete so hard to be in the rat race. Now they realize they can help each other on the way up.”

Melanie Fonder is a freelance writer and former staff writer for The Hill, a weekly newspaper that covers Congress. She's co-author of a new book, “The Complete Idiot's Guide to American Government.”

For more information:

U.S. Conference of Mayors:

Women Mayors' Caucus:

National Women's Political Caucus: