Reflections from Women in Local Government

March 31, 2022 - (25 min read)

Women’s History Month is a time to reflect on the significant contributions women have made to our history, culture, and society. It is also an opportunity to amplify and celebrate prominent women from around the world who are inspiring new generations of women to become future leaders and change agents in our cities, towns, and villages.

We asked NLC’s Women in Municipal Government (WIMG) Constituency Group to share what inspired them to run for office, the biggest advantages of being a female leader, what they would say to a woman considering running for office, and who they consider to be their biggest role model. We thank all members who participated, including:

  • Mayor Elise Partin, Cayce, SC
  • Councilwoman Jennifer Torres-O’Callaghan: Lathrop, CA
  • Mayor Nancy Backus: Auburn, WA
  • Mayor Brigette Peterson, Gilbert, AZ
  • Councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw: Kansas City, MO
  • City Councilwoman CMO Place 3 Sonja Coleman, Forest Hill, TX
  • Mayor Katrina Thompson, Broadview, IL
  • Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia, San Antonio, TX
  • Council President D.M. Collins, Center Point, AL
  • Vice Mayor Jenn Duff, Mesa, AZ
  • Mayor Kassandra Gove, Amesbury, MA
  • Council Member Chemberly Cummings, Normal, IL
  • Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, Madison, WI
  • Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, Austin, TX

These are their responses:

What Inspired to You to Run for Office?

Mayor Elise Partin: When I was growing up, my mother was the Director of Media Relations for Mayor Joseph P Riley, longtime Mayor of Charleston, SC.  I grew up knowing that parks and sidewalks didn’t just happen.  That someone thought through those kinds of things.  So, when there was a need in our City, I offered myself up to serve our Citizens.  I have now been elected four times and am thankful to get to bring our diverse citizens together and create ways for them to help us make Cayce a great play to live, work and play.

Councilwoman Jennifer Torres-O’Callaghan: I ran for office because I wanted to make a positive difference in my community. I wanted to be a voice for our families. Families had been asking for better crosswalks near the high school for years, to no avail. So, I decided to run to make a change. And I am serving my second term now. To date, I have had two lighted crosswalks installed near our schools – the first in our city- making crossing safer for our students.

Mayor Nancy Backus: I have always been driven to public service and community volunteering. I was mentored by a great woman by the name of Jeanne Barber who had been faced with many challenges in her life. She took each one in stride and handled everything with grace and dignity. Even if she disagreed with someone, they felt valued by her. She lost her youngest son, and I lost two dear friends to a car fatality. That tragedy brought us closer. She had worked for Congressman Norm Dicks and ultimately ran for Auburn City Council. When she decided to retire midterm, she encouraged me to apply. I did, and was appointed by the council on July 7, 2003. I loved my ten years on the council – all while working a full-time job in Finance at The Boeing Company. When the opportunity to run for mayor became available, I knew that it was definitely time for me to do so. The privilege of working full-time for the city that I love was my dream! I became the first female City of Auburn Mayor in its 132-year history. I have loved every day (now in my third term)- even the most challenging ones because I am inspired by the community that I serve!

Mayor Brigette Peterson: I couldn’t wait and expect someone else to make a difference for me or my Town. I knew I had to step up and make a difference myself.

Councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw: I was inspired to run for office when I realized the fact that women run a majority of the households across the country but are not equally represented in positions of leadership in our democracy.

Councilwoman Sonja Coleman: My inspiration came from what I thought was a dream… I was awakened from my sleep, and was given the seat number to run for. It was a little bit frightening, because I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. And I never really thought about it. But, as an ordained Minister I wasn’t afraid of a new challenge. I had formally, served as a Resident Board member for the Economic Development Council, so as a Community partner it just made sense to pursue the opportunity. Even though it was many years in between, I knew it was the political journey I was called to make. So now, the rest is history!

Mayor Katrina Thompson:  I was asked to run for Mayor in 2016. I turned the offer down 3 times. After saying “no” for the third time, I said let me check with my daughter Sydnei. Sydnei was graduating from high school in 2017 and I didn’t want to take away the time from her, like shopping for prom dresses, or senior activities that required my time. I then asked her what do you think about me running for Mayor. She said go for it! “Mommy, it’s your passion to help other people and I am going away to college. This community needs you.” Sydnei is the reason I am the Mayor today, she is my inspiration.

Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia: I serve as the District 4 representative to the San Antonio City Council. I was the first woman elected to represent District 4 and I am currently serving my second two-year term. I’m also a marketing professor at Our Lady of the Lake University and a proud UT-Austin graduate. Part of the reason why I ran for office is that I wanted to create an inclusive place where residents are active participants in local government. We want to provide volunteer opportunities for those interested in civic engagement and helping their communities. We aim to empower residents so that they can advocate for themselves and their families and neighbors. Although I grew up surrounded by some incredible women, there weren’t lots of women in leadership positions. I was fortunate to count on the mentorship of some wonderful women who encouraged me to follow my professional goals and not shy away from opportunities.

Council President D.M. Collins: My 5-year-old son, who was 3 at the time I decided. I made a decision to sell my home and move to a “safer” community because I wanted better for my child. My house was perfect, I loved my little neighborhood, but because it was labeled as bad, I felt we didn’t belong. I got an offer on my house in a couple of weeks and it was then that I realized that I was doing what everyone does, LEAVE. Too often this happens in our neighborhoods, the people with the mindset and ability to work for better, leave. I decided that before I leave, I would do what I can to make the community better for me, for my son, and for everyone who lives in Center Point.

Vice Mayor Jenn Duff: Falling in love with my local community when I moved to the downtown area of my city in 2009. It prompted me to serve on boards and co-create a community advocacy group, which eventually led me to city council in 2019. Another motivator was there were no women on city council.

Mayor Kassandra Gove: At the time I was the Chamber of Commerce Director and I’d taken on responsibilities beyond the scope of my position. I was making a difference in my community but reaching the limit of what I could do from that office. When members of my community suggested that I run and I considered the Mayor’s Office as the next logical place for me to serve my community from it was a no-brainer. It’s the position with the broadest vantage point for someone like me with vision and a knack for the details. Bringing my experiences from across the country to this office to make my hometown the best it can be is something I never dreamed I’d have to opportunity to do.

Council Member Chemberly Cummings: I was active in a variety of community organizations, including serving on the Town’s Children’s Discovery Museum Foundation. The Town’s adoption of an award-winning comprehensive plan, and my participation in the planning process, introduced me to the process of visioning the Normal of the future, inspiring me to seek election to the Town Council. In this role, I am able to guide Normal to be a premier community.

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway: I ran for mayor because everyone in Madison deserves the opportunity to thrive, and in order for that to happen, we need to build more affordable housing, provide better transit, prepare for climate change, and address racial disparities in wealth building and opportunity. My career working with mayors all across the country, and my service on the Madison Common Council, prepared me well for the Mayor’s office.

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes: My career has been dedicated to public service, including mobilizing and empowering everyday Texans to engage in the policymaking process. But the turning point was when I met a Latina Texas state representative. Representation matters. Seeing someone who looked like me in a position of power as an elected official confirmed that I could do this too. I hope, in return, that my example inspires more women of color to do the same. 

What is the Biggest Advantage of Being a Female Leader?

Mayor Elise Partin: Female leaders look at things differently.  And that’s why we need both men and women in office, not one or the other.  When I was first elected as Mayor, our children were two and three.  Having young children and serving as Mayor helped me to always keep perspective.  It kept me focused on WHAT really matters in our community and WHO really matters in our community. Women very often lead not only with our heads but with our hearts.  We give of our whole selves to make things better.

Councilwoman Jennifer Torres-O’Callaghan: I think the biggest advantage to being a female leader is that I come to office with a holistic viewpoint: As a working parent, as a mother, as a daughter of elderly parents, and as a female. These life experiences not only frame who I am but how I see the world and what my priorities in office are. I listen to lead. I’ll say that again: I listen to lead. I think females are intuitive listeners and this helps us to advocate for families, students, the elderly and those who do not have voices at the table.

Mayor Nancy Backus: There are many advantages to being a female leader. Sometimes it’s quiet strength, or consensus-building or fierce passion, but it’s always about compassion. I have three words that I use when making decisions:

  • Compassion
  • Accountability
  • Community

Mayor Brigette Peterson: Women in general look at situations from a different perspective and are used to having many projects going at the same time.

Councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw: There are several advantages of being a female leader. Women are more compassionate and empathetic which can lead to more collaboration and compromises.

Councilwoman Sonja Coleman: I have never seen this role as being or having an advantage. But as a Leader, I have learned that certain things can only be done by a Woman. We are created and wired to do things differently! Historically, we never had the privilege of serving in these types of offices because they were generally filled by Men. So with that, the pressure to prove our value and strength is constantly tested. Women have an amazing level of empathy and compassion that can easily relate to the needs of people. We are go-getters and when we set our minds to do things; moreover it will happen. Being the first in my family to be an elected official set the tone for others to follow. It takes courage, tenacity and momentum to be your best self. We must understand we are products of the sacrifice that we build for other generations to come. I am grateful to be chosen as a trailblazer in my family, community and generation.

Mayor Katrina Thompson: I believe that female leaders have a strong social commitment. Women are more inclined to introduce family-friendly policies. The impact would translate into, for example, greater participation in decision-creating assistance for people in the community, self-management, and greater environmental awareness.

Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia: Some of the greatest advantages of being a female leader are the empathy and wealth of knowledge that comes with experiencing the world as a woman. The right to vote or choose who to marry or even pursue work outside the home are some of these basic rights we can’t take for granted. There are generations of women who came before us and worked tirelessly to ensure women were given equal rights. Being disenfranchised and marginalized gives us the chance to create a more inclusive, accessible, and equitable society.

Council President D.M. Collins: The biggest advantage of being a female leader is inspiring and motivating other women to become civically engaged. Many people see politics as a “man’s” field and for so long it was dominated by a male majority. It’s so empowering for women, like myself, to enter into this field letting their voices be heard and bringing change to their community.

Vice Mayor Jenn Duff: Seeing people beyond words and holding space for other women. One woman’s success is another’s.

Mayor Kassandra Gove: Women are able to juggle multiple tasks simultaneously. This is a significant advantage in the Mayor’s Office where linear thinking is not sufficient. We have too much to do to only handle one thing at a time. Women are also better at communicating and team building which has been an advantage at this time in particular during the pandemic. Not only has leading during this time required significant empathy but our workplace has changed in a short amount of time and we need to help our teams through this change with understanding and appreciation.

Council Member Chemberly Cummings: One advantage is the ability to use unique experiences as a female business and community leader to cultivate strategic partnerships, build diverse coalitions and empower others to pursue their passion and positively impact their community. As a female leader, I can serve as a role model to other women, youth, our minority population, young professionals and various community stakeholders. Empowering and educating youth on local government is meaningful when a female, minority, well-respected woman is taking the lead.

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway: It’s so important to have different perspectives at every decision-making table. Being a woman shapes how I perceive and navigate the world, and that perspective is important.

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes: Being a woman in a leadership role means I have the opportunity to bring up other women with me. In fact, I look at it as a responsibility. It positions me to act through a lens of equity, from selecting members of committees to considering roles in the city. Any chance I can uplift another woman–non-binary, cisgender, transgender–I will.

What Would You say to a Woman Considering Running for Office?

Mayor Elise Partin: Do it.  We need you.  Consider yourself asked.  In a TEDx talk I gave on how everyone should run for office , I talked about how similar serving in this way is to serving in so many different ways that we already do.  You can do this! For women in particular, the research tells us that we often think we have to wait until we have a “Ph.D.” in every aspect of everything that we will deal with in our role.  And that thinking hurts our communities because it means we are missing out on so many great female leaders.  As a Leadership and Public Speaking Coach, I see women doubt themselves too often.  While we all do that sometimes, it can’t be our default mode.  Ask your best cheerleader(s) to list all the great things about yourself.  Write them down to keep you going on the cloudy days.  And then go use those skills and gifts to make your community better!  Don’t wait.  Stand up now.  If we care that much, we will continue to learn as we grow and serve.  But don’t wait.  Offer to serve now!

Councilwoman Jennifer Torres-O’Callaghan: You can be the change you wish to see. Be prepared for being underestimated. That is okay because they won’t see you coming. You need to believe in your goals, hold fast to your priorities, and advocate for them. Use your voice. Seek out women mentors and listen to their experiences, you will learn so much and gain a support system you can rely on. Be prepared for adversity but don’t dwell on it. Choose to stay positive. You can make a difference. And I hope you will.

Mayor Nancy Backus: Do it! Women often wait until they feel overqualified before taking a leap into any job, while men take that leap and figure that they’ll learn the skills once they have the job. Now, I know that is a generality, but I have seen it play out more times than not. There will always be on-the-job training – it’s just the nature of the calling that we have to serve, but nothing can compare to the passion, dedication, and drive that women can share! Let’s remember to lift one another up, instead of trying to tear one another down. There’s room for all of us to serve because the need is so great in our communities.

Mayor Brigette Peterson: Apply for a board or commission to get involved locally and understand how the process works. This offers the opportunity to learn, to have the commitment of an appointed official, and meet people serving around you.

Councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw: To all women who may be considering running for an office, I’d say “Please run. Our democracy needs you”. The positive impact of women in politics is undeniable. As more women are elected to office, there is an increase in policymaking that emphasized priorities of families and quality of life which is better for everyone.

Councilwoman Sonja Coleman: I would tell her don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t worry about making a mistake, because you learn from trial and error. You must stay focused on the assignment. There will always be things that Others will say and question about what you are doing or why you are there. Find the initiatives that you are passionate about changing, and work on that. Don’t try to bite off more than you can chew. It’s better to be impactful than to be important. Embrace each day, do what you can, and enjoy the experience. We must be the change we want to see.

Mayor Katrina Thompson: If you are a strong communicator, offer better conflict resolution, encourage teamwork, and you are a purpose-driven woman who is nurturing and a promoter of a healthy work-life balance… GO FOR IT!

Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia: My advice to other women is to stop apologizing or feeling like you are not qualified for the opportunities out there. I’ve met some incredible women who defy expectations and lead with compassion all while juggling numerous responsibilities. Anyone who tells you something can’t be done hasn’t met a determined woman. We need our elected officials to reflect the communities they represent. We need more women to serve in leadership positions and set an example for younger generations.

Council President D.M. Collins: Always remember your “WHY?” Why did you decide to run for office? Why did God place you in this position? There will be many days when you ask yourself why am I doing this, My prayer is that you remain strong, steadfast, and remember your “why.”

Vice Mayor Jenn Duff: Just do it! Give up any worries or doubts (we all have them – not good enough, smart enough, etc). You are enough and the world is waiting for you to lead.

Mayor Kassandra Gove: This is a lifestyle, not a job. Make it yours and you can do it.

Council Member Chemberly Cummings: I would advise a woman considering running for office to share their passion, build a support system, never stop learning, be prepared (and over-prepare!), never turn down an opportunity to meet with others, be open to ideas and alternative opinions in order to expand your perspective and constantly grow your sphere of influence.

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway: Do it! We need more women in elected positions. Take advantage of all the trainings and support opportunities you can, and in particular, make sure you think about personal and cyber security early on in your campaign. Get yourself a good support system – someone you can count on to have your back no matter what. And when you get elected – trust yourself and do what’s right.

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes: Know your worth, because you’re more ready than you think. Women seem more prone to get stuck in a pattern of waiting until we have crossed off these arbitrary lists of what makes us qualified to take action. The reality is you just need to give yourself permission. And once you do, fail fast and fail early. That’s the best way to learn. We need more women in office–why not you?

Who Would you Consider to be Your Role Model?

Mayor Elise Partin: The women around me astound me. The friend who is a 25-year breast cancer survivor.  The friend who raised her kids without support.  The friend who thinks of others first.  The friend who walks the path with me towards reaching our goals.  The friend who became one of the youngest councilmembers elected in the state and had both her babies while serving in office.  The friend who encourages my faith.  All these women demonstrate strength and kindness and gratitude, and those things always inspire me to be my best self and to continue to serve others.

Councilwoman Jennifer Torres-O’Callaghan: I admire our Vice President Kamala Harris. She is a true advocate for criminal justice, for families, and for equity. She is unapologetic, tireless, and fierce. Her “I’m speaking” moment during the VP debate spoke to me and so many women who are interrupted or spoken over. She stood up for women, our voices, and our power to speak our truth.

Mayor Nancy Backus: I have been blessed to have many role models in my life and each has a very important place in my journey. Of course, Jeanne Barber who I mentioned previously, and so many more than I can list. It sounds a bit corny, but both my mother and my daughter are definitely role models for me. My mother is 94 and she worked outside the home back in the early 60’s – long before it was considered truly acceptable. She also had her own bank account (scandalous at that time!) and was strong in her conviction and love for her family. I know there were many things that she gave up to raise a family. I am adopted, and so is my brother who is eight years older than me. My father questioned whether my mom should want to adopt another child at the “advanced age of 36”. My mother was relentless, and I have been blessed with a wonderful life because the two of them decided that I was to be their daughter! My 23-year-old daughter is also my role model and the only blood relative that I know. She has been a soccer player since the age of six, and a goalie since the age of nine. She played club soccer as well as high school, received a scholarship to play and attend Green River College, and when we thought her soccer-playing career was over, she received a scholarship to play at The Evergreen State College. Her playing career is now complete, and she has a bachelor’s degree with a focus in political science, but her passion for soccer is not over, so she is now coaching and working to obtain her license. I am inspired by her passion and commitment, and her desire to give back. We often joked that we both liked being targets (me as mayor and her as the goalie). I have “bookend” role models, and I am definitely a better person to be loved and nurtured by them both.

Mayor Brigette Peterson: There are several women that come to mind. I have observed them during different times in my personal growth and the growth of our community. I learned different aspects from each of them and each person came into my life at just the right time for those lessons.

Councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw: I would consider my parents as my role model. They both came from meager means and grew up in a nation of segregation and were subjected to blatant racial discrimination. Through hard work and lots of prayer, they persevered. They have instilled in me to always be true to myself and my values.

Councilwoman Sonja Coleman: I have learned and obtained wisdom from so many people but being raised by 77-year-old Church Mother, I was taught about community and sharing. Most Sundays after service, she would make dinner and serve the parishioners. That unconditional heart to serve and give back was inspired and instilled at the age of five. I am so grateful for my upbringing because it molded me into the person I am today. This opportunity will be something I can share with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Every day I am making history.

Mayor Katrina Thompson: My mother is my role model. She showed me at a very young age love for your neighbors is what you love for yourself. She’s a strong, faithful, loving, kind woman.

Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia: As the proud daughter of Mexican immigrants, I believe my parents are the most influential people in my life and I will always feel indebted to them for all of their sacrifices. My father and mother weren’t offered the privilege of completing their formal education and completing school up to the first and second grades. Like many other families in our communities, my parents had to work at an early age and were fortunate to find a home in Southwest San Antonio. I am grateful for the support they have provided me all my life and the value they placed on completing an education. Although my parents couldn’t help me throughout school, they instilled in me a love of learning that helped me pursue my goals and earn a doctorate degree. Latina women are severely underrepresented in higher education and many women don’t have the opportunity to complete a professional degree. As a single mother, I know that my parents have helped me build a solid foundation for my son to prosper and grow surrounded by love. Even though there were times when they asked me repeatedly when I would finally be done with school, I know that deep down inside they were proud to see their only daughter achieve her goals.

Council President D.M. Collins: The beautiful, graceful, and resilient Stacey Abrams. Stacey discovered her why, rose up, and fought, is still fighting for change in her community, state, and Nation.

Vice Mayor Jenn Duff: Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Mayor Kassandra Gove: I don’t have one in particular and am honored to be the first female Mayor in our city so young girls have a female leader to look up to that I didn’t have as a kid.

Council Member Chemberly Cummings: My role models include my grandmother, Francis Grimes as she worked for Cuyahoga County and as a County Commissioner; former Normal Town Council member Sonja Reece for her legacy as a community leader and active NLC member; the late US Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones who always felt it necessary to stay close to those you serve by serving them beyond your seat by rolling up your sleeves and volunteering in the community.

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway: My mother, Anne Rhodes. She taught me that it is everyone’s responsibility to care about our community and our world. She showed me that if you can contribute, you should. She encouraged me to use my voice, and to make a difference in the world. She works every day to build community resilience and to fight climate change. I only hope I can be half as effective as she is. 

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes: Growing up, I saw my mom work hard to get her GED and learn English. An immigrant from Mexico, she took classes from the teachers at my elementary school after my classes ended. My mom didn’t just tell me about how important schooling is, she showed it. Thanks to her, I understood early on how education is the greatest equalizer. She’s the epitome of resilience and strength.

Get Involved

Want to get involved in Women’s History Month activities and connect with women in local office? Join NLC’s Women in Municipal Government (WIMG). Membership is complimentary to NLC direct member cities.

About the Authors