High-profile mayoral elections this year have already proved that the steps to City Hall remain steep for female candidates.
Only one of the nation’s 10 largest cities is run by a woman: Annise Parker of Houston, who faces re-election in November. Just 12 of the 100 largest cities have women in the top job, including Fort Worth, Baltimore and Las Vegas.
This year has seen two notable candidates falling short: Democrats Wendy Greuel in Los Angeles, who made it to a runoff and then lost, and Christine Quinn in New York, who was considered the front-runner for months only to come in third in a Sept. 10 primary.
Next week, Boston voters have a chance: Charlotte Golar Richie is one of a dozen candidates for mayor in the non-partisan preliminary election Sept. 24.
The political group EMILY’s List — which raises money for female candidates — has endorsed women running for mayor this year in 10 cities, including Minneapolis; Dayton, Ohio; and Tacoma, Wash. But three are now sidelined, including Anita Lopez, who did not make a runoff in Toledo, Ohio.
“To be the chief executive, to be the person where the buck stops, that’s that kind of last hurdle for women in elective office,” says Debbie Walsh of Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics — who points out that big-city mayors wield considerably more power than individual members of Congress. “When you get to those really big cities where when you’re the chief executive you’re overseeing millions and millions of dollars in jobs and a big law enforcement presence, that’s where it seems to be a bit stalled out.”
In smaller cities, women do better. About 17.4% of all city mayors are women, about on par with the U.S. House of Representatives. And the U.S. Senate now has 20 women, an all-time high.
It could be that voters have more trouble seeing women as executives than as legislators, where collaboration, a traditionally female attribute, is more prized. Currently five of 50 governorships are held by women, and there are 24 states that have never had a female governor, according to counts kept by the Center for American Women and Politics.
Though New Jersey Democrat Barbara Buono faces long odds to unseat Gov. Chris Christie in November, things could change in 2014, Walsh says, when 36 states elect governors and women have already announced candidacies in New Mexico, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Jennifer Lawless, director of American University’s Women and Politics Institute, says studies show that voters aren’t reluctant to elect women to executive office. But not enough women run, she says. “The issue isn’t that they don’t have the credentials or the background anymore. The issue is that that’s not sufficient to get them to run for office.”
The difficulty of women winning executive branch jobs “is something we want to look at and understand better,” EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock says. For the group, which was formed to get women elected to Congress, spending on candidates in municipal elections means navigating a welter of state and local election finance regulations, she says. “These are tough glass ceilings for us to break.”
In New York, Quinn’s loss revived a longstanding argument about whether female candidates are judged more harshly than men on their clothes and demeanor, fueled by the comment of Republican mayoral candidate John Catsimatidis, who said, “If I have to listen to that voice for four years, I’ll die.” The New York Times reported after her loss that a team of seasoned political women had suggested Quinn pay attention to whether she was coming across as likable enough, and that opinion poll respondents described her, unfavorably, as “ambitious” and “bossy.”
“Nobody who runs for mayor of New York is not ambitious,” Walsh says. “But to be called that as a woman, that is framed as a negative.”
Having a female mayor is a barrier that, once broken, appears to stay that way. While Chicago hasn’t elected a woman since Jane Byrne in 1979, San Diego and Dallas have had three women serve as mayors, and San Jose and Houston have had two.
Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is the second woman to be mayor of Baltimore, winning election in 2011 after being appointed to replace Sheila Dixon a year earlier.
“I think that’s sometimes what it takes. You have to be able to see someone in that position,” she says. “Think about what it took when people were wrapping their minds around having a black president. It went from ‘Ain’t no way, never going to happen,’ to now people don’t give it a second thought.”
Martha T. Moore, USA TODAY