On the day Muriel Bowser became the seventh elected mayor of Washington, D.C., her place in the city’s history—the second woman to hold the job—was clearly on her mind.
“One of the single biggest surprises and delights of this campaign was the reaction I got from little girls,” Bowser told a crowd earlier this month, as she was inaugurated at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. “They watched me, they cheered me on, and they inspired me to keep pushing, to live up to their hopes and dreams. You probably know that there are a handful of women who run big cities… And today, because of you, I am one, too.”
Two days after she gave that speech, Bowser appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press with Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier and D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson for a segment touted as “The Women Who Run Washington.”
“Women are still chronically underrepresented in U.S. politics, at both a local and national level,” host Chuck Todd said. “But there’s one city,” continued Todd—whose wife Kristian Denny Todd, he disclosed on-air, was a paid campaign adviser to Bowser in 2014—“where those three top jobs will be filled by women for the next year, and that city is Washington, D.C. I’m pleased to be joined by the three powerful women who run the nation’s capital.”
“How fitting for the nation’s capital to have three women in charge,” Bowser said, a proud smile displayed.
It may be fitting, but it’s not as new as the glowing national coverage made it seem. While a woman police chief is indeed a rarity in U.S. cities (the first female chief of a major city was appointed in 1985 in Portland, Ore.; D.C.’s first was interim chief Sonya Proctor in 1997), women have served as mayors since at least 1887, when Susanna Madora Salter was elected in Argonia, Kan. Doris A. Davis became the first black woman mayor of a major U.S. city after she was elected by the people of Compton, Calif., in 1973. D.C.’s first woman mayor, Sharon Pratt, elected in 1990, was preceded in the late 1980s by Lottie Shackelford and Carrie Saxon Perry in Little Rock and Hartford, respectively.
“People don’t quite realize how influential, how involved women are in this city. But then remember that the city itself is not respected,” says Tom Sherwood, an NBC4 reporter who’s been covering D.C. since the 1970s.
In a city ultimately controlled and regularly insulted by Congress, where less than a fifth of the members are women, there’s something especially sweet about the District’s progressive Council, where women first held a majority in 1979.
For the past several decades—even before home rule—powerful women have pulled the strings politically in D.C., both in public and behind the curtain. Nowhere can that be seen more prominently than on the D.C. Council, where Bowser got her start as the Ward 4 councilmember. But it extends up to Capitol Hill, where Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton has been D.C.’s lone, non-voting member of Congress since 1991.
“This is a tradition in D.C., although it may be the first time the nation notes it,” says Norton.
The tradition is also seen in Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, where women hold 133 leadership positions city-wide, down to the political campaigns of D.C. candidates. “If you look far enough, it’s women who really run all political campaigns, whether it’s national, local, municipal, neighborhood,” says one-time deputy chief of staff to Marion Barry and longtime D.C. activist Betty King. “The people who really ring the doorbells, lick the envelopes, send out the emails … are principally women.”
“There’s a tremendous ignorance in the country and in this very city,” says Sherwood, “about the importance and power of women.”
Before District residents were able to vote for a mayor and Council, they voted for the school board. The first elections to fill 11 seats were held in 1968, five years before Congress would pass the Home Rule Act. It’s where future Councilmembers including Linda Cropp, Betty Ann Kane, Hilda Mason, and Carol Schwartz got their political starts.
“There were always women on the school board, and there were powerful women who were president,” says Kane, who was elected to an at-large seat in 1978 and served for 12 years.
In 1975, the first elected Council began its inaugural session, with Polly Shackleton representing Ward 3, Nadine Winter representing Ward 6, and Willie Hardy representing Ward 7.
“There had been no history of gender in elected office, since we were just starting,” says Charlene Drew Jarvis, who served as the Ward 4 councilmember from 1979 to 2001. “Many of the women who were elected in 1974 were a part of the civil rights movement.”
Just four years later, women reached a majority on the Council. Hardy, Shackleton, and Winter were by then joined by Kane, Jarvis, Mason (at-large), and Wilhelmina Rolark (from Ward 8).
While the achievement fulfilled the ideal of a legislative body reflecting its electorate, it also brought a diversity of backgrounds—activist, attorney, scientist, editor, educator—to the Council coupled with something that only women can bring to the table. Maybe they’re more concerned with the end product, as Councilmember Mary Cheh puts it. Perhaps, as Councilmember Yvette Alexander posits, women are naturally nurturing. Or more flexible in terms of their management, as longtime D.C. political columnist Jonetta Rose Barras says.
Whatever it is, women have shaped D.C.’s history for the better.
Kathleen Patterson, a three-term member who represented Ward 3, for example, led an investigation in 2004 as chair of the Council’s judiciary committee into public demonstration policing after mass arrests in Pershing Park at a 2002 protest. “She’s the reason the police department is now held up as a model of how to handle demonstrations, rather than being like Ferguson, Mo.,” says Sherwood of Patterson, who is now the D.C. Auditor. Her decision to hold hearings in the community, Barras says, also set an important precedent for the Council.
Jarvis helped shepherd legislation through the Council to build the Walter E. Washington Convention and Verizon centers, which became a critical part of new development downtown.
“I came from a scientific field,” says Jarvis, who chaired the Committee on Economic Development. “I had great respect for data and for outcomes. I had a good way of framing questions because that’s what I did in science.”
Schwartz, who twice served as an at-large member, championed a contested but ultimately successful bill to mandate paid sick leave for many District workers, making D.C. the second city in the country to do so. The law, Schwartz says, cost her a place on the Council, as the then-Republican was painted as anti-business, but it still makes her proud.
Linda Cropp, the first and only woman to chair the Council, from 1997 to 2007, is credited with helping restore the District’s image after fiscal disaster. “Anthony Williams, to his credit, has said publicly… that I really kept the city straight financially,” she says. “When the city was having severe financial problems, those most in need were the ones who were harmed.”
Elected to an at-large seat in 1990, Cropp was an educator and guidance counselor in D.C. public schools before her time on the Council. “As the chairman of the Council, it can be extremely difficult to bring 12, 13 ideas together in order to function,” she says. “My skills as a counselor, in particular, were extremely valuable in that process… I was trained to listen, to hear, to get an understanding of the different needs.”
But there are times when normally rational people won’t listen to reason. Her demand that Nationals Park be at least 50 percent privately financed made her Public Enemy No. 1 to baseball fans, as then-Mayor Williams claimed it threatened the deal. (Ultimately, Cropp was ignored, and the city paid for the whole ballpark.) But in retrospect, the vilification of Cropp seems especially unfair, considering that the new D.C. United stadium in nearby Buzzard Point will be financed through a 50-50 partnership between the District and the team.
“They wanted baseball at all costs,” Cropp says, adding that she was accused of not understanding the importance of the sport. “The reality is, I understand the costs of… doing what’s best for your family, and D.C. was my family. And I did not want someone to come in from the outside and take my family to the cleaners.”
While Cropp says she wanted baseball in D.C., she had to “protect my family… and strike the best deal that I could,” a decision she has not wavered from. “Now everybody else is saying, ‘Oh… yeah.’”
After Hardy’s departure in 1981, women regained a majority in 1985 after Carol Schwartz won an at-large seat. “We got a lot of pride and pleasure from it,” says Schwartz.
During that period, Schwartz says, she got “respective and equal treatment” from the men on the Council, like Chairman John Wilson and at-large member John Ray. Jarvis used her psychology degree from Howard University to ensure that happened.
“I did find that, with respect to some of my male colleagues, my approach to them was purposeful and tentative and seeking their input even though, in my mind, I knew the answers and I knew the outcome I wanted,” Jarvis says.
But as any powerful woman knows, confidence can be a dirty word in politics.
“Charlene Drew Jarvis was a masterful councilmember, but people grew tired of her because she had this huge ambition,” says Barras. “She had a powerful intellect. She could digest information and spit it back at you in a matter of minutes. She had an aggressive style.”
“I always considered that I was proactive but in women that can be considered ‘aggressive,’” Jarvis says of the descriptor. “I had a keen understanding of human behavior—who needed to be the more powerful of the pair, that he has power—and once that is acknowledged then the door is open to conversation… I never resented it. On the contrary, I was glad I understood it.”
The number of women councilmembers dipped in the early ’90s, only to rise to seven in 1997 and fall again in the new millenium. With the fluctuation comes a subtle change in the Council’s dynamic.
“It’s hard to put your finger on it [but] I detect a distinct difference with more women on the Council,” says Cheh, admitting to her own “complementary [view] toward women.”
Cheh, who was elected to represent Ward 3 in 2006, says for the most part she’s been “treated with respect and seriously.” But during her first Council session, with four elected women on the dais, Cheh introduced the Payday Loan Consumer Protection Act of 2007, which capped predatory interest rates. Cheh was in a John A. Wilson Building conference room with advocates for the bill, she recalls, when a male councilmember suggested that, perhaps, another councilmember should lead the charge against the “tough customers” of the payday loan industry.
Then-Chairman Vince Gray replied that Cheh could handle it, and the subject was dropped, Cheh recalls.“Would he have said that if you weren’t a woman? It crossed my mind.”
Outside the District, especially, Marion Barry’s legacy boils down to an infamous night at the Vista Hotel. There, he uttered his most well-known sentence about former girlfriend Hazel Diane “Rasheeda” Moore, on whom he pinned his (however temporary) political downfall in a memoir published before his death.
But when he first took office as the second mayor elected after home rule, Barry created a government of inclusivity, where qualified people were welcome regardless of their color or gender.
“He was a real feminist,” says Betty King of her former boss. King served as the head of Barry’s Office of Boards and Commissions during his first two-and-a-half terms and during his fourth term as deputy chief of staff and head of the Office of the Ombudsman.
The more than 1,000 appointees King screened, as Sherwood and Harry Jaffe write in Dream City, the definitive history of D.C. politics in the Barry era, “reflected the city’s diversity and geographical sections.”
“He was always very supportive of demographic balance,” says King, “by sex, by age, by ward of residence, by color, and so forth. We were very heavy into affirmative action.”
King, who worked on fundraising for Barry’s first campaign, says the mayor was open to input from women, a bare majority of whom were “part of the nucleus of the [campaign] staff.”
“I had never worked for anybody where I was so challenged and given so much freedom,” says King. “I served at the pleasure of the mayor, running an office that he very much appreciated and treasured. I had a lot of power.”
Sherwood agrees: “[King] was quite influential in the Barry administration,” he says. “She’s one of the many people in any administration who’s behind the scenes but very important to what gets done.”
While the equal-opportunity employer version of Barry seems odd juxtaposed against his later self—the man who opposed gay marriage, who blamed the “temptress” in his life for causing him to smack her—King says that was reality.
“What he did in his private life, it was completely different than what he did in his professional life, as far as those who worked for him were concerned,” says King of Barry’s public scandals.
But the most famous failing of his private life in January 1990 would temporarily take Barry out of the game while he served a six-month prison term, opening the door for an outsider to ascend to the top of D.C.’s political structure.
Sharon Pratt (who was once known as Pratt Dixon and Pratt Kelly) was elected in 1990, but not before she was forced to defend herself for being a woman. She told the Washington Post in July 1990 it was “something people were wrestling with” and later faulted her general election opponent, Republican Maurice L. Turner, for running “best man for the job” ads.
While Jarvis, one of three Democratic councilmembers to run against Pratt for the party’s nomination for mayor in 1990, dealt with similar stigma, she says Pratt won because she had never been part of the elected government. (She was, however, divorced from Council Chairman Arrington Dixon.) “Any of her allegations of the failures of government became a part of her mantra,” says Jarvis. “She could use the same brush to describe all the same candidates in the race.”
The first woman elected to be mayor of D.C., Pratt entered office on Jan. 2, 1991, facing a fiscal crisis left by Barry. Her legacy is now a cautionary footnote in D.C. politics rather than a highlight in the history of women’s progress. Just two years into her term, Pratt faced an unsuccessful recall campaign: “If this were a man, this would not be happening,” Winter, one of the first women elected to the Council, told the Post in March 1992. “If this is not sexism in the highest degree… where else is an elected official judged in only 12 months and nine days?”
But by 1993, the verdict was in: The city faced a nearly $500 million deficit, up from $300 million when Pratt took office. “Some female voters abandon Kelly,” the Post declared in August 1994: “Kelly… for many District voters was once a symbol of hope and empowerment, but… is now faring poorly among many of them.”
Pratt lost the 1994 Democratic primary to Barry, who mounted a post-prison comeback to beat Schwartz in the general election. But it’s hard to believe any person—man or woman—could have overcome the burdens facing D.C.: a heap of debt, an alarming drug crisis, the burden of paying for all “state” activities without federal help.
“It was an excruciating time for the city,” says Jarvis of Pratt’s term. “The challenges that she faced during that period were like none other that were faced later on.” Adds Norton: “The first black woman to become mayor could not have happened into a worse time in the history of the city. She would have had to be more than a man or a woman or several of those” to overcome the challenges.
Unable to conquer the deficit, as well as Republican outrage after his reelection, Barry’s comeback term ushered in one of the darkest chapters in D.C.’s history, the federal control board era. Four years after pushing out Pratt, Barry would himself be replaced by then-chief financial officer Anthony Williams, after he declined to run again in 1998.
While gender was part of the conversation before Pratt, women candidates for mayor didn’t see it as a deciding factor in the outcome of their races. When she ran for the Democratic mayoral nomination against Barry in 1982, former councilmember Kane says it wasn’t gender that hurt her; it was race: “People weren’t ready” for a white mayor, she says.
“I felt I had the capacity to be mayor because I understood how to solve problems,” Jarvis says of her 1982 run against Barry, “but, as usual, I underestimated the political skill of Mayor Barry.” Patricia Roberts Harris, the first black woman appointed to a secretary position in a presidential cabinet, finished second to Barry in the race.
But Schwartz says she had a different experience in the post-Pratt years. “We already tried a woman and that didn’t work out so well,” she recalls people telling her during her later runs against Barry in 1994, and Williams in 1998.
“Well, look at all the men who didn’t work out,” she says. “We certainly didn’t stop electing men.”
While Pratt’s legacy does continue to loom, Sherwood and Barras say Schwartz didn’t lose because of her gender. “People love Carol Schwartz,” Sherwood says. “She has an infectious personality that people like, but there are many reasons people vote. So she lost… five campaigns for mayor for a variety of reasons, none of which were her gender.”
“It had nothing to do with Sharon; it had everything to do with Tony Williams, [who] played the community so finely,” Barras says of the 1998 campaign.
Williams wouldn’t have run himself if not for another influential D.C. woman. On the day in 1998 that Williams announced he wouldn’t seek the mayor’s office, Marie Drissel was already scheduled to have lunch with him. The D.C. activist with a finance background was “dreadfully disappointed” by Williams’ decision not to run, she says, but was not deterred as she was armed with a precinct-by-precinct count that showed he could win. “He said, ‘My family is just adamant. They’re completely against it,’” Drissel recalls Williams telling her at that lunch. She replied, “Well, we’ll just have to draft you.”
“We really wanted to see change,” Drissel says of herself and civic activists Paul and Barbara Savage. With a team that showed Williams could bridge the race divide (Drissel is white; the Savages are black), Drissel says she raised $35,000 for a man who didn’t want to run.
“We did it, and we were very powerful doing it,” says Drissel, who was appointed director of the Office of Board and Commissions by Williams, the same position King held after helping get Barry elected.
Sharon Pratt may have moved on from politics—she now runs her own consulting firm—but some voters refuse to let her go.
“Let me just say this: Sharon Pratt Kelly. Okay?” a woman told the Post before the 2014 Democratic primary. “We don’t need that again.”
“It was disappointing when Sharon Pratt Kelly ended up being an unsuccessful reform mayor,” says Sherwood. But comparing Bowser to Pratt is unfair to both of them, yet, he says, “I hear it all the time.”
“Let’s say Mayor Bowser stumbles in some way,” says Cheh, who sat next to Bowser on the Council dais, when asked about the Pratt comparison. “That’s what it’s going to come down to. That will really annoy me.”
After her election in the fall, Bowser told Washington City Paper of the comparison, “It strikes me as odd political analysis, especially since I was in college the entire time Sharon Pratt was mayor.”
“I’ve only encountered objections [because of gender] a handful of times,” Bowser says now. “My campaign has been supported because it represents values shared by men and women.”
Less than a month into her administration, Bowser is facing her first major crisis after a Metro train filled with smoke, leaving one person dead and countless questions about what happened unanswered. It’s also the first test of how the D.C. media will treat Bowser, who’s still in the honeymoon phase of a mayorship that will, fairly or not, be compared to Pratt’s dark turn.
“This is about being an effective politician and executive,” Barras says of the way Bowser’s performance should be covered. “This has nothing to do with gender.”
Why was D.C. so willing to elect women long before the national press thought to celebrate it? In the 1970s and ‘80s, an influx of jobs in the local and federal government brought women out of the home, a development Kane says made her election to the Council a non-issue. “People [were] used to having women as the boss,” says Kane, the first woman appointed to chair a Council committee.
“When I was elected in 1979, I came into office because so little had been done to help revitalize our neighborhood commercial corridors after the 1968 riots,” says Jarvis. “I remained in office a good part of the time when cities were in distress. That was the most challenging part of my career in office. It was far more challenging than issues of gender.”
Norton, who works in the dual realities of progressive D.C. and conservative federal “Washington,” says “women have chased men out of holding sex against any woman in Congress.” During her successful campaign to become D.C.’s delegate in 1990, Norton was endorsed by EMILY’s List, a first for the Democratic organization, which previously would not take a stance when more than one woman was running in a single race.
“That’s how few women were running for the House or the Senate,” Norton says. But 25 years after her first election, the current number of women in the House—84, or 19 percent of the body— is “sad and shameful,” she says. “There is no reason why the House… should not be half and half.”
After the April special elections in Ward 4 and 8, women could have a Council majority again (although Bowser aide Brandon Todd, a man, is expected to win her seat). For the five women currently on the Council, there’s a sense of camaraderie, even if gender didn’t play a role during their elections.
“I don’t think it hurt me at all,” Cheh says of being a woman. “I think it was a plus. Anecdotally, people have said, typically men, ‘I’d love to be able to vote for a woman.’”
Ward 7’s Alexander agrees, but she also brings up an article from the Post’s Reliable Source that focused on Bowser’s marital status, albeit not in an outwardly negative way. “What does that have to do with anything?” questions Alexander.
But for women in other parts of the country, who face overt sexism, a non-judgmental article about marital status would seem like an endorsement.
Anita Bonds, an at-large councilmember who also heads the D.C. Democratic party, says party chairs from elsewhere have relayed to her the difficulties women face when running for office outside the District.
“We’ve been very liberal and open here in the District of Columbia,” says Bonds, whose involvement in D.C. politics stretches back to Barry’s first campaign. “I recall the early years with the gay pride movement. We were on it and doing things. Equality was our bag.”
“D.C. is more progressive when it comes to elected women because it’s more progressive,” echoes Norton.
Cropp points to women’s involvement in activism, both inside and outside elected politics, on a community-level. “D.C. is such a size that you can truly touch the lives of your constituencies,” she says. “People could feel the activism and involvement of individuals.”
Bowser’s election and decision to keep Lanier and Henderson in top spots set off a flurry of positive local and national press coverage, from the Post to Ms. magazine. And while it may have underplayed D.C.’s history, the Meet the Press appearance highlighted something the city is—and should be—proud of.
“The fact is, we have been showcased on national TV,” Norton says of primarily negative coverage, “but I have seldom seen D.C. spotlighted nationally in such a positive way.”