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Women have run in every Richmond City Council election since at least 1997. But this year, Richmond residents will have an all-male ballot of council candidates to choose from on November 8. Photo by Tawanda Kanhema.

In 2016 City Council election female candidates are missing from the ballot

on November 4, 2016

From her pew at the Praise Fellow­ship Bible Church on Central Avenue­, Pamela Price had a clear view of the City Council candidates seated on the panel.

It was the end of September, well into campaign season, and eight of this year’s nine council hopefuls had been speaking for about an hour, each one vying to differentiate himself from the others. Jael Myrick spoke on the importance of overcoming ideological divides, Vinay Pimple touted his role pulling the city out of bankruptcy, and Melvin Willis expounded on the need for rent control.

But the panelists seated before Price had one clear feature in common: They were all men.

Price, the political action chair for the Black Women Organized for Political Action Richmond chapter and a prominent civil rights attorney, wanted to ask the panel about sex trafficking in Richmond. But first, she said, she had to address what she saw in front of her.

“It grieves me that we have a panel of entirely men,” Price said, to applause from the assembled crowd. “When women are at the table, the conversation changes.”

Looking back on the same event, Kathleen Sullivan, BWOPA’s president, said she noticed the same thing.

“I looked around at some of my colleagues and friends and said, ‘What is wrong with this picture?’” said Sullivan. “It was, like, way too much testosterone in the room.”

Women have run in every Richmond City Council election since at least 1997, according to county election records. Which makes the total absence of women on the ballot this year—a year when the country may elect its first female president—notable.

Jennifer Piscopo, an assistant professor of politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said that this situation isn’t unique to Richmond, because women are underrepresented in politics across the country.

Women hold about 20 percent of the seats in the U.S. Senate and just over 19 percent in the House of Representatives, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. The center ranked California 22 out of 50 state legislatures for the proportion of women holding office. (Colorado is ranked first, followed by Vermont and then Arizona.)

But Richmond holds a place of distinction in California politics. The city elected Mattie Chandler as its first female mayor in 1926, just six years after women were granted the right to vote in the U.S. Four women have held the office since Chandler: Rosemary Corbin (1985-1993), Irma Anderson (2001-2006), and sitting councilmember Gayle McLaughlin (2006-2014).

“There was a precedent for a female mayor very early on, so it wasn’t a leap to elect a woman mayor later on,” said Melinda McCrary, executive director of the Richmond Museum of History.

But it did take over half a century for Richmond to elect its second female mayor.

Piscopo said women are often deterred from running for office because of family obligations that align with traditional gender roles.

“One of the things that women still contend with—unfortunately it’s still this way—is being mothers,” said Sullivan. “When it comes to elected office, the traditional values play a significant role in who runs and who doesn’t run for office.”

According to Sullivan, at least one woman BWOPA had hoped would run for Richmond City Council this year took her name out of the race due to “family dynamics.”

The irregular hours of political life can clash with family life, and this can discourage women with younger children from pursuing political office, said Piscopo. “Politics happen at night; it’s a job that happens 12 hours a day, especially in the evening.”

Piscopo added that women who are in politics tend to have fewer children than male politicians, and those who do have children often enter politics once their children are past school age.

Distrust and discouragement with the political system might also prevent women from running for office, said Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

“Women make the decision to run differently than men,” said Dittmar. “For men, it’s ‘I’ve always wanted to be in elected office.’” But for women, she said, the primary motivation to run is often to tackle a policy issue they want to change. Which means that when women want to effect political change, they may choose other avenues, such as nonprofit community work.

Piscopo added that “women are more reluctant to run because women correctly perceive the barriers and the risks”—which can include gender-based discrimination.

“Richmond politics can get really nasty,” said Jovanka Beckles, Richmond’s other sitting female councilmember. “It’s really a big turnoff to working women and working mothers.”

Discriminatory behavior at the national level might also be influencing women’s decisions to opt out of running for office, Piscopo said.

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has been the target of gender-based criticism throughout the election season. Her opponent, Donald Trump, has said publicly that she doesn’t have a “presidential look” or the “stamina” to hold office and accused her of playing the “woman card” to get ahead. Just last month, Trump called Clinton a “nasty woman” on live television during the third and final presidential debate.

“It definitely shows you how sexist the game is,” said Sullivan.

But Beckles said that discrimination on the national stage might not be to blame for the shortage of women on Richmond’s 2016 ballot.

“Especially women of color, we see sexism, we see racism on a daily basis,” she said.

Ayana Kirkland Young, one of two women running for two seats on the West Contra Costa Unified School District this year, said she has yet to be put off by intolerant behavior on the campaign trail.

“I think I’m confident enough as a person and as a woman that that doesn’t stop me,” she said.

Beckles said she thinks that the 2018 ballot will be much more gender-balanced than it is this year. “I really believe we are going to see some really wonderful, articulate justice-oriented women running for city council,” she said.

The leaders of Richmond’s BWOPA chapter have pledged not to let another election year go by without a single woman running for the council. And from each woman who opted not to run this year, Sullivan said she kept hearing the same refrain: “Not now, but I’ll consider ’18.”

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