'Raleigh's a special place:' Raleigh's milestone moment for women in city leadership

Joel Brown Image
Saturday, March 25, 2023
Milestone moment for women in local government
It's a milestone moment in Raleigh city leadership. For the first time, a majority of women hold the highest offices in city government.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- It's a milestone moment in Raleigh city leadership. For the first time, a majority of women hold the highest offices in city government. The police chief, the city manager and 75% of Raleigh City Council are women.

As the nation marks Women's History Month ABC11 sat down for interviews with the mayor and council to talk about what the moment means.

When a group of Raleigh girl scouts was called to the well of city council chambers a few weeks ago, it was more than a photo-op and proclamation of Girl Scout Week. It symbolized something more inspirational and aspirational.

"There's a lot of girls in that picture and that's not something we've seen before," said Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin. "My hope is that they also feel inspired to give back and be a public servant."

Women in leadership is at its highest point in the history of Raleigh. It's not like that everywhere.

Nationwide, according to data from the Center for Women in American Politics, women hold 30.5% of municipal offices, such as city councils and mayoral offices. At state legislatures, nationally, women make up just under 31%. And in Washington, 26.5% of Congress is female.

It's a major under-representation. Except in Raleigh. There are eight city council seats. Six of them are held by women -- including the mayor.

"When I'm talking about it, people are just like, wow, it's so unlike any other place in the country," said District A Council Member Mary Black. "And I'm like, yeah, Raleigh's a special place."

"It's a great case study for across the country that women are ready to step up," said District B Council Member Megan Patton. "Women are here. We've got opinions. We know how to lead."

In the hallway outside city council chambers hang the portraits of the many men who've served as mayor since Raleigh's founding. The glass ceiling was finally broken in 1977 when Isabella Cannon was elected as the city's first female mayor. Three decades passed before it happened again. But Mayor Nancy McFarlane's time as mayor seemed to signal a shift.

"I moved here in 2011 under Mayor McFarlane and now we have Mayor Baldwin. So to me, it's been normal. To me, it's been women, we run this," said District E Council Member Christine Jones. "I think we bring in a perspective that's missing."

It's a diverse group of women with a diverse set of opinions. But they all agreed that they bring a neglected perspective to policy-making.

"Paid parental leave, healthcare issues, and family issues. We are often the leaders of our families and so if we do not have this role in public office then that voice will be missing," said District D Council Member Jane Harrison.

"In some ways, we're more collaborative. We're able to get along; able to talk through different issues and come up with some great results," said At-Large Council Member Stormie Forte. "And so it's a fantastic time to be a woman in the City of Raleigh."

It was Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress who said, "If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair."

"I got my folding chair," Black said. "And I think more women in office, especially here, have been the reality of bringing a folding chair when it's time to run and govern."

Despite the gains in the City of Raleigh's representation, the consensus among this group is it's not enough.

"The reason we're talking about it is because it's unique," said Baldwin. "Otherwise we might not be having this conversation. I'd like to see it not be so unique."

"It'll be enough when it stops being novel and interesting that this many women are at the table because we've reached a point of accepting that all our governing bodies should look like the populations that we serve," Patton said.

"I think we just keep pushing for the best candidate," said Jones. "And hopefully we have women step up to be that."

And more women are stepping up and winning, not just in Raleigh, but across the Triangle. Five of the seven seats on Durham City Council are held by women, including the mayor. And in Chapel Hill, women hold six of the nine seats, including mayor.

All of them making history and making policy along the way.