Black women take strategic posts in city's government

City Transition

January 18, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

As she raises her hand and solemnly swears, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon will make history today before she steps inside her new office - breaking 200 years of male domination at City Hall and placing Baltimore as the second-largest city in the nation with a woman in charge.

Dixon, 53, is Baltimore's first female mayor, and her ascension not only bucks a national trend toward more males in local government but also ushers in a year in which black women will occupy the most powerful positions in Baltimore, including the mayor, City Council president, comptroller and state's attorney.

"It matters," said longtime City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who became Baltimore's first female City Council president in 1987. "Every time a woman takes a job that's new, I think there's more pressure on that woman to perform than on a man who would take the same job."

In addition to Dixon, women will continue to lead the City Council, the comptroller's office and the city state's attorney's office. They will hold a three-seat majority on the city's powerful Board of Estimates and, depending on how a vacancy shakes out this year, will likely maintain a majority in the council.

"It's definitely a coincidence to some degree, but that doesn't mean you can't celebrate it as well," said Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake, a West Baltimore city councilwoman who is expected to become council president this month. "Women have made an important impact on Baltimore for years."

At a time in which one woman, Nancy Pelosi, has become speaker of the U.S. House and another, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, is considered a leading presidential candidate, major cities are still overwhelmingly run by men. Twelve of the nation's 100 largest cities have women as mayors.

While the overall number of female mayors has increased during the past several decades, the number of women leading the most influential city halls has declined since the 1980s.

Women moving up

"It has stagnated some, especially among the 100 largest cities," Gilda Morales, a project manager with the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said of the number of female mayors. "It could be because a lot of these women are running for state legislatures or Congress."

Former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne, who served from 1979 to 1983, became one of the nation's best-known female mayors. At the time, Houston, Phoenix, San Francisco, San Jose and Austin, among others, also had installed women in city hall. Sharon Pratt Kelly served as mayor of Washington from 1991 to 1995. Today, Dallas is the largest city with a female mayor, and the next-largest is Baltimore.

Dixon technically became mayor yesterday when Martin O'Malley was sworn in as governor, but her public swearing-in will take place today at the War Memorial Building in downtown Baltimore. Dixon will serve out the remainder of O'Malley's term, through December, and is expected to seek a full four-year term in the September primary. At least two other women have said they will also seek the job this fall.

"I think I do bring a different perspective as a woman, especially being a mother. I want every child to be healthy and to have a good education," said Dixon, a mother of two. Asked why a woman's perspective is different, she said: "I think the way a woman juggles many hats at one time - not that men don't."

Baltimore's first mayor, James Calhoun, took office in 1797 and, for 210 years, the old boys club at City Hall never looked back. Under the headline "City Has Mayoress," The Evening Sun ran an article on Dec. 12, 1918, about a "Mrs. L.T. Barrie" who occupied the seat of power for a few hours while then-Mayor James H. Preston attended a naval event at the harbor. Barrie, referred to as mayoress six times in the article, vowed to "sit tight, but talk sweet."

In 1932, then-Mayor Howard W. Jackson allowed several women to sit in his chair to be "mayor for a minute."

Management style

It's unclear whether women who sit in the mayor's chair more permanently treat the job any differently than men. A survey of female state lawmakers of both parties found that, on average, they are more likely to oppose the death penalty and support abortion rights. The 2001 study, by the Center for American Women and Politics, also found there is a perception among male and female legislators that women are more likely to provide access to disadvantaged groups.

"I think women have a greater concern for things like recreation, child care, health care, education, domestic violence," said city Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, who credits men with opening more chances for women to enter politics in recent years. "I think they're more emphatic and sympathetic to those issues than men are."

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