Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
More women are on track to be elected mayor in the top 100 cities than ever before—in some major cities, for the first time. But not before overcoming some major hurdles.
The last time the mayor of Seattle was a woman was in 1926. When Bertha Knight Landes ran, local papers assured voters that she was “plain” and “unassuming,” that she went to church, that she was not a “chattering woman” or perhaps worse, that she was not a “new woman” either. When she won, Landes made history, and not only in the city: As the first woman mayor of Seattle, she also became the first woman to be elected mayor of any major U.S. city.
In the wake of this year’s election season, almost 100 years since Landes took office, more women will become mayor in the top 100 U.S. cities than ever before, many in historic wins. Seattle elected a woman for the first time since Landes. And at least five other U.S. cities of all sizes elected women for the first time in their histories, too.
Of the nation’s 100 largest cities, seven elected women this year, and in three of them, women unseated men. All told, 21 women now serve as mayors of the nation’s largest cities.
“It’s notable as a part of the larger trend of women candidates defying expectations and making history while doing so,” says Jean Sinzdak, Associate Director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “While the overall media narrative is focused on the fact that Democrats as a party did exceedingly well last night, the thread in that narrative that jumps out at me is that women and people of color drove that success.”
These mayoral candidates’ political ascent shouldn’t be conflated with their gender, but their particular paths do reveal something about the future of women’s representation in local office—where ceilings are shattering, where barriers remain, and why.
Seattle elected Jenny Durkan, the first woman to take City Hall in 91 years; Manchester ousted a male incumbent to elect Joyce Craig, the first female mayor in the city’s 266-year history; Provo elected the first woman to ever even file to run for mayor, Michelle Kaufusi. Framingham, Massachusetts, which just voted to become a city in April, elected Yvonne Spicer as its first ever mayor—and she's a black woman. In April, St. Louis elected Lyda Krewson as its first female mayor; earlier this month, Canada’s Montreal made its own history, electing Valérie Plante; and on November 18, New Orleans elected LaToya Cantrell as its first, as well.
Six other large cities who already had their first women mayors achieved hard-won seconds and thirds, and there were victories in smaller cities too—but we won't have the final total, updated to include places like Myrtle Beach and Topeka, until after everyone is sworn in early next year.
Since the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers began tracking these statistics in 1989, the highest proportion of women mayors in cities with a population of 30,000 and above (including in the top 100), was 21 percent.
“These wins are sure to boost that proportion,” says Sinzdak.
Each of these cities bears a unique set of challenges, and sought a fresh face to tackle them. Three cities in particular have something else in common, too. Even before ballots were cast in Seattle, Provo, and New Orleans, voters were choosing amongst slates of all women (with the exception of one write-in candidate). In Seattle, the city needs a mayor who will tackle the affordable housing crisis, and replace Ed Murray—elected in 2013—who resigned in May amid accusations of sexual assault; in Provo, the newly booming city seeks an advocate for smart growth; and New Orleans residents hope their new mayor will follow through with the housing and criminal justice reforms begun under the current mayor, Mitch Landrieu.
That it has taken so long for these major cities to be helmed by women is perhaps unsurprising. The road to City Hall as a female candidate, even when traveled successfully, is not without its bumps—as evidenced by these women’s experiences. This year, we may have only seen a net gain of two female mayors in the nation’s 100 largest cities, but that accounts for a 10.5 percent increase since last year, and a 133 percent jump in the last six. The pace of women being elected to local office is accelerating, more rapidly than ever.
“In research as far back as I’ve seen, often women say they want to run for office to get something done, and men want to gain power,” says Erin Loos Cultraro, founder and CEO of She Should Run, an organization that champions female candidates. “[This year], women are still saying those same things—we have to do better—but there’s an increased sense of urgency.”
A city like Provo is an especially hard place for a first-time woman mayoral candidate to run for office. There are the usual barriers to women politicos: the cyclical nature of politics; the preponderance of male incumbents; the sexism women know they’ll face if they ascend. But it’s also unique: Provo is home to the Mormon Brigham Young University, known for being staunchly conservative; and religious values that prioritize “traditional” family roles inform much of the city’s base. Not every Provo resident practices the LDS religion (though, even as Salt Lake City’s LDS population shrinks, Utah County’s is growing, this summer peaking at 84.7 percent) and not every religious resident is averse to a woman in power.
But even before Michelle Kaufusi and Sherrie Hall Everett won the primary to become the two candidates for mayor this fall—and even before Kaufusi won—the climate they described was chilly.
“I honestly thought Provo wouldn’t have a woman mayor at this point,” says Kaufusi. “When I went down to submit my paperwork they told me I was the first female ever in the history of Provo to even file.” (She got there before Everett did.)
“I think it’s hard sometimes for women to run because culturally they’re either working or taking care of their families,” Kaufusi says, referring to the state of Utah’s culture more generally. “And, they serve in so many other ways.”
Everett agrees. “The LDS church is not necessarily that culture now, but some of those old ideas and generational ideas have persisted,” she says. “And so I think we’re breaking through a lot of that here.”
When Everett served as a city council member in 2008, she served on a council of five women and only two men. She says at first, she and her peers faced resistance. “There were sometimes derogatory terms about us; and ‘cultural’ terms about us; and sometimes whispers in the hallways at City Hall from other elected officials and things like that,” she says. Everett feels that eventually, the council secured the respect of the community. But in the years that followed, the political pendulum swung in the opposite direction: For the past four years, only one woman has served in City Hall.
This fall, when it became clear a woman would make it to the top, the whispers started again. After filing, Kausufi got anonymous Google form submissions (“Provo doesn’t need a woman mayor”), and Everett got disparaging calls from local women (“We need a man for the job!”). But the biggest challenge hit each of them simultaneously: an older, male write-in candidate, Odell Miner, who came in third by a margin of 129 votes in the primary.
Miner, who worked as a private consultant and started the Rocky Mountain School of Public Affairs, said Provo needs a businessman like him in the executive office. “The mayor is the chief executive officer of the community,” Miner said before the race, unconvinced by his opponents’ credentials. “You’re not looking for someone quote unquote ‘just off the streets’ to step in and manage that type of responsibility.”
Kaufusi is not inexperienced in Provo’s public sector: She has served on the Provo District school board since 2011, and acted as a school board president since 2015. She campaigned on expanding the city's strategic growth, building off of former mayor Curtis' work. Everett served on the newly formed transportation mobility advisory committee and had a hand in shaping the city’s master transportation plan, after serving on the city council. A small business owner herself, she’s been a boss—her own—for longer than she’s served under one.
“Unfortunately, gender is not the issue in this particular case,” Miner insists. “There are very qualified women in Provo who could serve as mayor, it just happens to be that neither one of these ladies has traveled the miles or walked the footsteps so to speak to really be qualified.” He pauses. “Although it’s safe to say that both of them are of the opinion that they’re quite capable of taking this on.”
Ultimately, so is the city of Provo.
In 1926, Seattle papers assured readers that Landes was not one of those nasty “new” women—the kind widely frowned upon in the ‘20s for smoking cigarettes, or cutting their hair short, or god forbid, wearing pants. Much has changed for Seattle since then: It was the first major U.S. city to approve a $15 minimum wage, and, until he resigned, Ed Murray served as the city’s first openly gay mayor. In Durkan, who is a lesbian, the city has elected its second.
While the Seattleites of the 1920s worried that Landes’ unconventional ambition might lead their city astray, papers lauded Durkan for her leadership experience. Durkan has worked for more than 20 years as a state, federal, and private attorney, serving as a U.S. attorney in Seattle from 2009 to 2014. During that time, her office prosecuted Seattle police for using excessive force, and negotiated a settlement that led to broad reforms.
Indeed, Seattle seems to be ready for a new kind of leadership. Even before Durkan’s victory, the top four candidates in the mayoral primary were all women—and Murray’s resignation left many Seattleites angry, and ready for change.
“92 years later and Seattle is about to have another woman mayor. How about that?” Durkan said to a crowd of her supporters after her victory Tuesday night. “Mayor Landes was quoted as saying Seattle is not really a city, it's really a larger home,” she continued. “So that's how we have to think of Seattle… as a place where everyone has a home.”
Durkan ran on a platform of building affordable housing and solving homelessness. This resonated with Seattle residents, whose city welcomes 57 new residents, and creates only 18 new places to live, every day. She has also promised to provide free tuition to Washington State community and technical colleges for all Seattle public high school graduates.
But despite Durkan’s historic win, the race to mayor in Seattle highlighted certain challenges facing the modern female politician. While the Seattle Times endorsed Durkan for her traditional management experience, her opponent, Cary Moon, faced harsh criticism for the opposite.
"For her accomplishments, she ticks off a list heavy on intangibles,” one Seattle Times article reads. “Moon has struggled to show she has the management experience or concrete accomplishments to prepare her to lead a $5.3 billion, 12,000-employee city bureaucracy.”
This sense of having to justify ones credentials is one that many women in politics share. “Women have to do more to prove they are qualified,” says a report by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, an organization that advocates for women's equality in politics. “Women face a litmus test men do not: Voters will support a male candidate they do not like but who they think is qualified, but don't apply the same standard to women.”
Moon, an urbanist who has more than 20 years working with the City of Seattle and in a variety of leadership roles, experienced this litmus test first hand.
“I have worked in the public sector, the private sector, and in advocacy and nonprofit sectors. I took time off to raise kids,” Moon says. “My resume looks like a typical woman’s resume, in this day and age, but it doesn’t look like the resume of a politician who has worked full-time in politics for 20 to 30 years.”
In part, Moon wanted to run for local office to push back against this outmoded political climate. Like many others, she decided to run for local office after Trump was elected last November. “Honestly when Donald Trump got elected, like a lot of women I realized it’s time to step up and show a different kind of leadership,” she said. “You think, ‘everything’s fine, democracy is secure, I’ll just stay in my lane over here doing the good work I’m doing,’ and then you realize wait a minute, everything’s at risk, and we all have to step up.”
By Wednesday morning, Provo voters had stepped up, too. Most of the ballots were in: Kaufusi had 3,601 votes to Everett’s 2,695. Miner had 1,656. The official number wouldn’t be in until the next afternoon, and Kaufusi told local press she was cautious, not wanting to celebrate too soon. For Everett, it was Groundhog’s Day all over again. “This is just what happened in the primaries,” she told the Daily Herald. “We have three more counts to go. We’re going to sit this out. We’re only in the first quarter of the football game.”
By November 9, Kaufusi had officially won, and on December 5, she was sworn in as interim mayor as former Mayor Curtis beings serving on the Utah House of Representatives. On January 2, 2018, she will officially take office.
“Provo is a unique place,” says Kaufusi, “but I think the glass ceiling’s coming down. And I’m ready for it.”
CORRECTION: In a previous version of this article, we reported that there could be a 25% increase in the number of women mayors in the top 100 cities, including in some races that hadn’t completed by election day, based on projections by the Center for American Women in Politics. That calculation contained errors, and the increase could only have reached 15%. We have since updated the article with the actual results as of December 2017.