There are as many women serving now on the Metro Council as men with some variation of facial hair. It’s an odd comparison, sure, but it’s telling. There are nine men with a moustache, goatee or beard. And there are nine women.
That’s not to say women on the council haven’t taken on high-profile roles. Megan Barry chairs the council’s powerful Budget and Finance Committee and is a favorite among the city’s progressives. Emily Evans has emerged as Mayor Karl Dean’s most forceful critic, and she’s also the council’s de facto financial analyst. Vice Mayor Diane Neighbors is the first woman elected to that seat; although not a voting member of the council, she presides over meetings.
Nevertheless, women remain vastly outnumbered in Nashville’s legislative body — and in the city’s political universe in general.
This longstanding historical fact was the backdrop two weekends ago for a workshop organized by Women in Numbers, a group formed in 1992 whose mission is to help elect women to local and state offices. Council candidates in attendance went over some basics such as door-to-door campaigning, media relations and fundraising, all with the idea that women could command a greater council presence after August’s election and its subsequent run-off in September. (Disclosure: This reporter participated in a panel discussion there on media relations.)
“Certainly the council’s representation is not representative of Davidson County,” said Judy Cummings, president of WIN, which plans to endorse candidates. Over the winter, Cummings became the first female pastor in the 151-year history of Nashville’s New Covenant Christian Church. “We would like to see more women occupy those seats, to have that voice at the table, and to be able to give input into how our city runs.
“Not to say that women’s wisdom is greater than men’s, but I think when you have a balance you probably have an opportunity for a perspective that meets the needs of those being served,” she said.
According to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau figures, women account for more than half of Davidson County’s population, but they make up less than 25 percent of the council. To compare, African-Americans make up 27 percent of the county and slightly less than a quarter of the council. Both demographics have better representation than Nashville’s growing Hispanic population, which stands at 10 percent of the county — but there are no Hispanic council members.
Men outnumber women in elected offices across the state and nation. Of the country’s 100 U.S. senators, only 17 are women. In the U.S. House of Representatives, 76 of 435 members are women. Seven of Tennessee’s 34 state senators are women, and 17 of the state’s 99 House members are women. One of those women, Beth Harwell of Nashville, serves as speaker of the House. She is the first woman in that role.
“You’ve got to remember in the broad scheme of things that women are underrepresented in a lot of legislative bodies,” said Evans, who is seeking a second term to represent her Belle Meade-area district. “So part of it is a global issue. But Nashville, as compared to a lot of other cities, a fairly small portion of its legislative body is women. When you compare us to our peer cities, you start to see something that actually sets us apart. And we’re not the only one — there’s lots of cities like ours.”
Evans attributes the disparity to a couple factors. Most notably, she said, research suggests women tend to prioritize family and children, and sometimes opt to forego any political desires until later in life. In addition, because Nashville’s council is unusually large, proportionate representation of the sexes requires a greater number of female candidates than in other cities.
“Women [also] tend to have a more difficult time with fundraising, because we don’t necessarily have the instant credibility that men tend to enjoy because of their business relationships or their practice of law, or what have you,” Evans said.
In local government outside the council, women are underrepresented as well. Of the county’s elected constitutional offices — which include clerks, the sheriff, trustee and other offices — Public Defender Dawn Deaner is the only woman. Jo Ann North, who in 1979 became the first woman elected countywide in Nashville after winning an at-large seat, had been Davidson County’s assessor of property, but she stepped down three years ago. In the judicial branch, several women have earned judgeships in Davidson County.
Women have made strides since the council’s boys’ club of the past (female presence on the council has peaked at 12 members). Betty Nixon, the fourth woman to be elected to a district council seat, was the only female council member during a four-year stint in the 1970s. Then North was elected.
“We used to joke that if we doubled every term, we would have 50 percent women by some year,” Nixon said. “Actually, it wasn’t really a joke.
“I grew up a tomboy, so I was just a tomboy in the council,” said Nixon, who’s regarded as the first neighborhood activist elected to the council. “Some people were unsure about what to do with me, but I really got along pretty well and was able to achieve, along with all of my activist friends, a lot of the things that we wanted to do.”
It’s possible that women could enjoy greater representation during the next council term. Only one female member — Vivian Wilhoite — is term-limited, though Kristine LaLonde has opted not to run for re-election.
“Women are 51 percent of the population, so they should have better representation on the council,” said Barry, who’s up for re-election in August and whose name is frequently bandied about as a candidate for higher office — someday. “There are a lot of women running right now in some of these district races where you could see the gender mix in the council change next time.”
Two women, Seanna Brandmeir and Sheri Weiner, are squaring off in Bellevue to replace departing District 22 Councilman Eric Crafton. Incumbent District 20 Councilman Buddy Baker, who represents parts of western Davidson County, is facing a serious challenge from two candidates, including Mary Carolyn Roberts.
In the Inglewood-Madison area, conservative Councilwoman Karen Bennett must overcome a tough opponent in Nancy VanReece. If elected, VanReece would become the first openly gay woman to be elected in Davidson County. Also in East Nashville, competing for Councilman Jamie Hollin’s District 5 seat are Pam Murray — who was ousted from the same seat in a 2009 special election — and Amy
Bryson, who worked to remove Murray.
Several candidates are competing for Wilhoite’s Antioch-area district, including Karen Johnson, who enjoys the best name recognition of the group. Johnson, a former member of the Metro Nashville Board of Education, lost last year in the Democratic primary for Davidson County Juvenile Court Clerk.
“I think it’s important to have women on the Metro Council because they do bring a unique perspective and different viewpoints,” Johnson said. “I think women are hard workers, and we have the ability to follow through and get things done.”