Article: Women's representation in Chapel Hill town government

Hi all,

I wrote this piece for a final assignment for a reporting class at Carolina (I'll finally be graduating in 10 days!).

I felt bad it wouldn't really be reaching an audience, and some folks encouraged me to post it here in case anyone is interested. The article is about women's representation in Chapel Hill municipal government and includes historical information as well as interviews with several women public officials/figures, including Penny Rich, Donna Bell, Rosemary Waldorf and Renee Price.

Just thought I'd share! I've followed this blog for several months but have never posted.

Leah Josephson


Chapel Hill Town Council member Penny Rich considers her first experience with politics to be a petition drive she coordinated as a seventh grader. The goal of the drive would likely be unimaginable for most public school students today: Rich was fighting for the right to wear pants to school.

At the time, girls were not allowed to wear pants to school, even in cold weather. Rich said female students wore pants under their skirts until they arrived at school and then changed before class, although they weren't allowed to use the bathrooms to change and were forced to literally drop their pants at the back of the classroom.

One day, Rich refused to change out of her pants in the morning and was suspended by the principal. He allowed her to come back to class and made her a deal: if Rich could find 100 people to sign a petition in favor of girls' right to wear pants, he would consider changing the policy.

Rich found more than 500 students, parents and teachers willing to sign, and her first political victory was behind her.

 "I was twelve years old, and I learned a lot about leadership from that experience," Rich said. "If you want to get something done, you sometimes have to do it on your own."

More than 30 years later, Rich has served on the town of Chapel Hill's Technology Advisory Committee and the board of the Orange County Water and Sewer Administration. And she was elected to her first term as Town Council member in 2009.

Rich is just one of a long line of women who have been deeply involved in Chapel Hill municipal government since before women gained the right to vote in 1920. Many of them say their identities as women in politics have shaped their experiences. But historically, fewer women than men have served on Chapel Hill Town Council, and the town has only had one female mayor, Rosemary Waldorf, in its history.

Adelaide Walters was the first female member of the Board of Aldermen (the name of the current Town Council until 1979) and served from 1957 to 1965. Walters was a teacher and then a research assistant at UNC-Chapel Hill. She also was president of the local and state League of Women Voters and leader of the North Carolina Council of Women's Organizations, before her election to Chapel Hill Board of Aldermen.

Walters, who is the namesake of a street in Chapel Hill as well as a community housing project for the elderly and handicapped, was the only woman to serve on the board, which was then a six-member body, throughout her tenure.

No more than two women served on the council, which expanded to eight members in 1975, at any one time until 1984.

The only years in which the council has been comprised of more women than men were 1998 and 1999, whereas men have made up the majority of the council for 48 of the past 58 years.

"In the period of time I've been watching local politics, I think in the typical election cycle there are more men running than women, but most of the women who run good campaigns get elected here," said former Mayor Waldorf.

This pattern will continue after the Town Council meeting on Monday, December 5, at which the newly elected council members will be sworn in. Three incumbents, Donna Bell, Matt Czajkowski and Jim Ward, will be joined by newcomer Lee Storrow, who will replace former council member Sally Greene. Greene chose not to run for reelection this term.

Greene's absence will tip the balance of council so that it is comprised of five men and three women: Bell, Laurin Easthom and Rich.

Of the three mayoral candidates and nine Town Council candidates this election cycle, the only woman running was Bell.

Renee Price, president of the Orange County Democratic Women (OCDW), said she hoped the gender makeup of this election didn't become typical. She said members of her group are dedicated to improving gender representation at the local and state levels.

OCDW is chartered under the Democratic Women of North Carolina, a group that was established in 1961 as a result of Democratic Party women's influential get out the vote efforts for former Gov. Terry Sanford.

Price said she hopes North Carolina women continue their strong tradition of activism, but that they need to get directly involved by running for office now more than ever.

"We have to remember women make up 54 percent of the voting population," Price said. "And with the budget the way it is, women who work in the public sector - at schools, hospitals - are getting hit harder with cuts."

Price has been involved with politics since she helped a friend run for the General Assembly when she lived in New York State and then worked writing legislation for the body. She has lived in Chapel Hill since 1990. She has served on the Human Services Advisory Board and held leadership roles on the Planning Board, the Historic Preservation Commission and the Environment, Health and Safety Committee.

"I can remember quite a few years where administrative assistants would be the only other women in the room, and I would sit next to them," said Price. "There were also times where I was only woman on the board."

Price ran for a spot on the County Commission in 2009 and lost, but plans to run again for a seat. She thinks women offer a unique perspective as public servants.

"Listening to my colleagues, I see that women tend to prioritize more of the social issues," Price said. "We don't forget about the other things, but we think first about things like schools, family and health care."

Rich agrees that women's contribution to local government is unique.

"We're gatekeepers for our families. We take care of our kids, our parents, our pets. We're running households," Rich said. "I think women look at politics as an avenue to get things done, whereas for men it's often a power thing."

Carol Teal, executive director of Lillian's List, a local organization that supports progressive women candidates running for public office in North Carolina, said she looks to recruit women serving in municipal offices to run for the General Assembly or statewide offices.

"Local government is a natural place for anyone to start, but especially women," Teal said. "It's those local issues that really affect our families and our lives, so it's a natural starting place for women. And by serving there, they can begin to see themselves in different roles and higher offices."

Current council members Bell and Rich pointed to challenges women in particular face in deciding to run for public office. Bell has a three-year-old daughter, Olivia, who sometimes has to come with her to meetings when scheduling child care with her partner becomes difficult.

"I just kind of have to steel myself to the fact that she might laugh watching a video on my phone," Bell said. "I can't go into it thinking I have to be very professional - professional meaning no multitasking and no small children."

Bell said there were measures she thought the town could take to make its advisory boards, committees and Town Council more accessible to people with young children, like scheduling meetings at more convenient times, providing child care during meetings and making an effort to create a culture that's more open to children's presence. Bell also noted that the way meetings are conducted could be off-putting to some community members.

"A lot of these boards and commissions are based on rules that people in certain sectors would be more comfortable with. If you don't work in the business world, the rules about how conversation happens and how information is entered can be difficult," Bell said. "I think it's really important we tell people that all of these things are learned, and that just because some people are more used to the process doesn't mean they'll be better."

Rich said efforts had been made by the town to reach out to underrepresented communities to encourage members to get involved. Advisory boards and commissions have typically been unrepresentative of the actual number of women and people of color in the community.

The town hired a new community participation coordinator, Jennifer Phillips, this year to work with the advisory boards to recruit new members and to work on the Chapel Hill 2020 comprehensive plan efforts.

"We are reaching out to people," Rich said. "Every time someone talks to me, concerned about an issue, I encourage them to join a board. You have to react; you can't just sit there and let people do it for you."

Former Mayor Waldorf, who is co-chair of the Chapel Hill 2020 initiative with George Cinciola, said diversity has been a main goal for the members of the comprehensive plan outreach committee.

"That's one of the things we've worked really hard on in these 2020 projects - reaching out to many different populations," Waldorf said.

Waldorf said the committee has made an effort to not only achieve gender diversity but also diversity of ethnicity, community of origin and stage of life.

"We're really trying to bring in people in their teens and twenties and thirties," Waldorf said. "This plan is really for them."

Waldorf said diversity shouldn't just be about counting the number of people of a certain race or gender in a group.

"I think the contributions that women on the Town Council have made in Chapel Hill have been significant," Waldorf said. "But I think it almost has more to do with individual personalities and with ideologies and issues than it does with gender."

Teal said she thinks the decision-making process changes, however, when there are more women and members of other minority groups in a room.

"Women need to be at the table," Teal said. "You get to the point where there's a tipping point: there's enough critical mass that you're never the only woman in a committee meeting, and it changes the conversation."

Rich said she hopes an increasing number of women continue to run for office in Orange County.

"I have a feeling women's leadership roles are dwindling, and I don't know why," Rich said. "Now that we're one woman down on council, it makes me a little nervous. Two years from now, are we going to have the same local politics wonks running for office again?"

Bell, who got directly involved in local politics when friends encouraged her to apply for the Planning Board, said her busy lifestyle is often difficult, but rewarding.

"It's important to me to be Donna Bell, social worker, Donna Bell, Town Council member, and Donna Bell, Olivia's mom," Bell said. "But finding that space of balance is very difficult and guilt-inducing. It's something we just need to start having conversations about so we can show women there are different paths to proceed."




Thanks for not keeping it to yourself! =)

Thanks for posting this. I know you were very passionate during the interview. OP is always a good way to share, lots of reads and open for comments. I hope you continue writing stories for this site.

In the national literature, women participation in governance is more dependent on crises or passionate interests while men (as Leah notes) are more into the power of elected office. But what I have never seen is an analysis of the qualitative differences in the issues driven by or supported by women once they get into office. Locally, I know Sally was a moving force behind inclusionary zoning. For the current year, Penny initiated the discussion of cell phones and driving and petitioned for the change in the alcohol serving policy at the old library building. Laurin initiated the withdrawal of the TOC approval for OWASA's request to modify the boundary service agreement that restricts bringing water in from outside of the service area. Donna was instrumental in facilitating the North Side review once it came to the agenda. How does that compare to what the men on council have done? Matt pushed on all aspects of the IFC plan for Community House. Jim was the instigator of the council's discussion. I can't think of any other issues raised by the male council members in public meetings. Based on those public actions (I know there had to be less public actions such as those that occur on the various committees), it doesn't seem like there is much qualitative difference between male and female council members. But is that an accurate analysis? Does it really matter if there are more women in elected office if there isn't a significant qualitative difference in their leadership? Or is the difference not in leadership on issues but in governance process? 

17 years of public service between Sally, Laurin, Donna and myself and you quote 5 instances of leadership. I for one respect anyone who is willing to serve as an elected official or volunteer on a board or commission, but please don't say that what my colleagues have done over the past 17 years combined is not quality work. It is very measurable and well recieved in our town. Womens voices count. We need to have those voices in leadership roles. Leah herself may one day be a leader. She shows passion and interest in making sure we don't get drowned out. 

I didn't say there wasn't leadership. I listed the issues that I know have been championed by the 4 women on this years council to date and asked how those issues differed from those of the men (for whom I could list fewer issues). There's absolutely no reason to be so defensive. If we can't talk openly and honestly about the qualitative (vs quality) differences between leadership style then we haven't come very far at all. Back in the 60s and 70s we had to focus on numbers because there simply weren't enough women in this kinds of positions to look at anything but numbers. But we've come a long way and now we can start looking behind the surface factors (such as numbers) and really begin to start highlighting the differences voters would see in the way governments are run with women having an equal public voice.

Perhaps the reason Penny is reacting this way is that you chose two small issues to define two years of very active elected service to the community (as well as her work before she was elected). Penny leads on environmental, social justice, and land-use issues among others. I would be pretty annoyed if you defined me by my most controversial blog posts instead of the ones that I spent the most energy on and that impacted the most people.

I can understand how folks would bristle if, after reading Terri's post, they thought she was defining each council member's entire contribution to local politics with one or two narrow issues, but I didn't take it that way. I thought she was trying to get discussion going and pulled those examples out without much thought. This is a great article and I think Terri asks an interesting question. My own thoughts are that gender doesn't matter as much as it used to. There have been a lot of female council members from across the political spectrum and I would be hard-pressed to try to designate a defining qualitative difference (when compared to male council members) in leadership. Some recent examples that I would say cross the spectrum include Flicka Bateman, Edith Wiggins and Pat Evans who were on the council in the early 2000's, I believe.  

I concur.  (however in terms of amount of "stuff done" should should the term be Quanitative?)   Weakness is provocative.
"One of the most noble things you can do is kill the enemy."-Maj. Douglas Zembiec

Your mention of Pat Evans is interesting. The CH Town Council has always had  a representative from the minority "go-go-growth republicanish crowd". And that's fair, from a proportional representation perspective. Those folks should have a voice. It has usually been one representative. We've seen Lee Pavao, Pat Evans, Edith Wiggins (easy to benefit from "minority status"),  and now Mat Cz. As much as the Chamber strains to claim a mandate, there is usually just one of these reps. Matt Cz, with backing from the conservative wing of Chapel Hill demographics came in a distant 3rd. This is the way it's always been. The electorate justifiably delivers one pro-business, pro-development rep to the Town Council, usually at the tail end of the returns. The rest are more nuanced, regular citizen types who are trying to plot a logical way forward.  

they served concurrently and because they served long enough ago that I think we could actually discuss them dispassionately. I agree with you that one there often seems to be one pro business candidate, sometimes two,  represented on the council. I'm not sure that Edith Wiggins would always and everywhere fall into one category or another. I remember at least one passionate speech she gave chiding the council's inaction in the face of northside neighborhood development. 

Mark,You've made a claim and applied a lable. I would like to see your evidence that Matt C is 'go go growth republicanish'. 

No-one can get elected to the CH Town Council while sounding like John Boehner or Mitt Romney or Ben Bernanke. All the candidates supported by the "profits first" activists in the business community paid lip service to "Chapel Hill ideals" in their campaign communications. You know - affordable housing (the campaign issue that keeps on giving), grow businesses while "protecting the environment" (Matt Cz thought displaying his bike helmet represented a deep environmental commitment), the three legs of the sustainability stool (then like the CoC talking point, candidates would say that the social justice and environmental legs are so long and mature in Chapel Hill that we need to focus on the "step-child" leg of economic development), etc.

Using  that same logic, people who don't know you could look at the business you are in, where you live, etc. and come to equally off-target  generalizations about you. Maybe you should actually talk to Matt and make a decision based on what he says or look at how he votes rather than using assumptions built from your prejudices against others. I see no value in labelling Matt or anyone else. Some of those who consider themselves to be exceptionally progressive have made conservative-like votes over the past year (Sanitation 2, Yates Bldg). All that means to me is that no one in this town is idealogically pure. Thank goodness for that.

with the redistricting and the effect it could have on the number women serving in the General Assembly.

"... took plenty of hits in the public hearing yesterday, and so did the fact that so many of the casualties are Democratic women."

But there are at least some legal challenges to the maps, among which the League of Women Voters of North Carolina is participating: I've also heard about this program that helps women prepare to run for office:

"The program is sponsored by the The NC Center for Women in Public Service, a nonpartisan organization that strives to build the involvement of women at all levels of governance in North Carolina by preparing women to seek and serve in elected and appointed office, advocating for systems and structures that facilitate women’s involvement, and promoting the value of women’s participation in governance." 

Qualitative: Relating to, measuring, or measured by the quality of something rather than its quantity: "a qualitative change in the curriculum"; involving distinctions based on qualities; "qualitative change"; "qualitative data"; "qualitative analysis determines the chemical constituents of a substance or mixture"Quality: General excellence of standard or level OR a characteristic property that defines the apparent individual nature of something; "each town has a quality all its own"

Leah, thanks for posting this.  As you said in 98 and 99, there were more women than men on the town council.  But I never thought about it in terms of gender.  Simply, there were nine people on the council, and I agreed or disagreed with individuals on issues, but gender had nothing to do with it.

Oral history is very important, and Leah's interviews add to that.Anne Barnes, the second female Orange County commissioner (1978-81) has a great oral history recording on the dearth of female politicans at: History Interview with Anne Barnes, January 30, 1989. Interview C-0049. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.          -----  Full Text of the Excerpt -----

"We still have not nearly the numbers of women elected to positions in this state as we should have. That takes a lot of encouragement for women. Politics is tough. Campaigning is tough. It's expensive. People need to have some kind of organization behind them that will help with the expenses of the campaign. The Caucus does that. Women need a support group. When you go out in politics, it's a scary experience sometimes when it's your first time out, or you haven't been around it enough to know that it's tough. There's a need to stick together and feel that kind of support organization behind you. Women need more encouragement to run for office, need more support once we get there. It's not easy running for office, and I think that women tend to be more susceptible to wanting to please, wanting to be popular. It's a part of our culture, at least for women my age. Maybe that's becoming less and less true, and I don't know if that's good or bad, but it's important to care about pleasing. All of that's important. But in politics you can't please everybody, and you have to be ready to take unpopular positions without it getting at you personally, without it being destructive to your own inner ego. It takes a lot of ego to be in politics. It's hard to be humble in politics because you're forced all the time to not be. You have to appear to be strong. You have to appear, in order to get elected, you have to appear to have things pretty well under control. And the truth is that you may not have it under control at all, because if you retain your sensitivity, you're going to be torn inside by these issues. But you don't want insensitive people to be elected. You don't want callous people to be elected. So it's tedious to balance between a personal inner sensitivity and the ego that it takes, or this appearance of strength that it takes, and the appearance of not being affected by whatever is being thrown at you and still maintain the sensitivity which you think the people really want you to have to the issues. That's a tough place. That is a tough balance to get to. I can remember early on when I was on the Board of Commissioners, having to deal with that, having an issue that I just had to deal with it. Was I going to be intimidated by an angry public or was I going to retain, was I going to be strong enough not to be intimidated, but still retain the sensitivity to deal fairly and even-handedly with people on both sides of the issue? Because I have felt intimidated. When you're in a public hearing where there's a lot of emotion and where you're being, publicly a lot of things are being said that seem to be personal attacks on your integrity or on your judgment. That's tough, and I think maybe in our culture men have been a little better prepared to deal with those, with that kind of adversity. I remember a story once, I heard in a workshop or in a speech, the example being that of a small boy who had been assigned a task that became too difficult, and he felt he could not accomplish it. Approached his father, who said to him, "Oh son, you can do it. I will show you how." And a small girl, facing the same situation, saying "Daddy, I can't do it." Daddy would take her on his lap and say, "Don't worry about it, honey, I will do it for you." That kind of early culture there, I hope that that is not as true as it was when I was a child because it teaches you to have someone else to do it for you, or it teaches you that it will be okay if you can't handle it yourself. There will always be help there, and that's tough to overcome. So that's sort of the situation I think many women feel themselves in when they want to get into politics. "Can I handle this myself? Can I do this?" And that's tough to come out forward and do."  --------
speaking of Anne being the second female Orange County commissioner, Flo Garrett was the first, 1972-76, elected when she was (I believe) 29 years of age.  I recently found that Flo in fact has been lurking at OP for more than four years and she recently posted a comment on an OP thread, but I will let her step forward and speak on this issue if she would like, rather than outing her username.

There's a factual error - Renee price doesn't live in Chapel Hill (she lives in Hillsborough) and the Boards she served on are not Town Boards, they are County boards.


Community Guidelines

By using this site, you agree to our community guidelines. Inappropriate or disruptive behavior will result in moderation or eviction.


Content license

By contributing to OrangePolitics, you agree to license your contributions under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.

Creative Commons License

Zircon - This is a contributing Drupal Theme
Design by WeebPal.