Tens of millions of Americans voted for a woman president. But in Richmond, few females have broken City Hall’s glass ceiling. The sole woman of 8 official candidates for mayor never broke into the top three, according to the polls.
Yet city councils have seen numerous women. Five women and four men sat on the most recent council. And a cluster of women represent the Richmond region in the General Assembly.
The city saw two female executives before the strong-mayor version of government was adopted: Eleanor Sheppard, who served from 1962 to 1964, and Geline Williams, from 1988 to 1990. Sheppard was the first woman elected to council.
With Hillary Clinton’s candidacy on people’s minds, some Richmond-area politicians muse on whether City Hall’s executive chamber is a welcoming place for female leaders — and what’s holding back others from running.
“Richmond treats women all right,” Councilwoman Reva Trammell says. “But it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. You have to walk the chalk line as a woman.”
Trammell commends her colleague Michelle Mosby for staying in the mayoral race till the end. “With all the stuff that’s going on, who would want to run for mayor?” she says. “If it ain’t made up, it’s stuff from 20, 30 years ago.”
Councilwoman Kathy Graziano, who announced her retirement this year, says the outlook is good for Richmond women.
“Personally I’ve never felt hindered in terms of running for office because I was a woman,” she says. “First time I ran for council, I ran against a guy, but I didn’t think about it that way.”
As for whether she considered higher office, “yeah, everybody thinks about it,” she says. “But at this point in the city we probably need someone younger, and I thought that the timing was wrong.”
Council’s gender makeup was at risk of changing Tuesday. Style went to press before results were announced, but two seats vacated by women, in the fourth and ninth districts, had male challengers. And two female incumbents faced male opponents.
Mosby, who was council’s first black woman president, gave up her seat to run for mayor — and found it eye-opening. “I personally don’t think Richmond was ready,” Mosby says. “It’s a complicated road, and it’s not been welcoming at all.”
On the campaign trail, she says her fellow candidates were respectful but treated her with kid gloves. “The candidates tried to be as delicate as they could because I’m a woman,” she says. “But I’d prefer they say what they’re thinking, so I can clarify what I’ve done.”
She also cites media coverage as a concern, citing a more informal picture that appeared in Style, compared with her opponents, and a lack of mentions in Richmond Times-Dispatch articles — one, on a mayoral forum, left her out, she says.
Candidate Jon Baliles called her “feisty” at one forum, considered a gender-tinged term, although it was meant as a compliment.
Mosby says it’s difficult to convince young women to run for office — and cited inspiring them as one of her reasons for running in a first-person Style essay.
“I went to John Marshall High School and had conversations with young ladies, and they ask, ‘How are you treated as a politician?’ And this is it,” she says. “I felt completely alone in this.”
She took out campaign ads against Joe Morrissey saying she wouldn’t trust him with her daughter. Morrissey served jail time after entering an Alford plea in December 2014, denying guilt but acknowledging there was evidence that he and his now wife, Myrna, had sex while she was underage — a charge both of them deny.
Referring to his wife, Mosby says, “How do we help women to understand their power, when you have one going through whatever at her age?”
Of 140 Virginia legislators, 27 are women — 19 percent. Several Democratic women represent Richmond: Delegates Jennifer McClellan, Delores McQuinn and Betsy Carr, and Sen. Rosalyn Dance.
McClellan theorizes that the cluster is partly because Richmond is the capital. She can get home to her children at night, but mentions how a female colleague representing Lynchburg struggles to do the same.
It’s a big jump from what McClellan calls the “retail politics” of part-time local councils and legislatures to executive office.
“I do think it’s harder for women citywide or statewide for a couple of reasons,” McClellan says. “One, when you transition to that full-time job, it’s a little harder for women to find that balance with family — part of it is societal expectations, part is expectations we put on ourselves.”
Women also tend to come to the field late. “The traditional path for women in politics is you get married, you have children, you get involved through your kids, start out running for school board, or after you retire and can take time off,” she says. “It’s harder to work up the ranks.”
McClellan notes that she did it “backwards,” being elected to the General Assembly at 33. “I didn’t have any issue when I ran,” she says, “but when I got pregnant, there were people who assumed I wasn’t running for re-election.”
“The higher you go, the more push back you get because there’s still a segment of society not comfortable with women in charge,” she says. “They’re OK with women in collaborative, legislative roles, but not in an executive role.”
Virginia has never had a woman governor, or sent a woman to the U.S. Senate. Virginia’s 11-district congressional delegation has a single woman, Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-10. A close race in the 5th District could yield another.
When redistricting made Virginia’s 4th Congressional District blue-leaning, state Sen. Donald McEachin defeated Chesapeake City Councilwoman Ella Ward for the Democratic nomination, despite not living in the redrawn district.
Selena Cuffee-Glenn, Richmond’s chief administrative officer, has 30 years experience working in government, but has never run for office. She delicately dodges the possibility and prefers to focus on her track record.
“To bring my experiences and to have the competence to provide talent,” she says, “it provides a strong foundation. So that if doors open in the future, people can see what this person brings to the table.”
Cuffee-Glenn suggests that women might be a harder sell on running for office, that their inclination is to build a skill set first. “We look at the whole of the environment and ask, can I bring the skills?” she says. “If our presence cannot fit those skills, we choose not to walk through that door.”
What does that suggest about male candidates? She laughs and refuses to speculate.
Delegate McQuinn is hopeful for eventual change in the political field, particularly in light of the presidential election.
“We have been slow, and the systems have been slow, as it relates to nurturing women and realizing their potential,” she says. “But I believe that we have an opportunity now to really tap into those gifts and talents across the country.” S