BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — When Carol Clarke realized she was the first woman to represent her district on the Birmingham City Council, she was stunned.
On Tuesday, Clarke joined four other women — Valerie Abbott, Wardine Alexander, Crystal Smitherman, and LaTonya Tate — to form a majority on the city’s top legislative body. The change to a majority-women council comes after a city election season that caused shake-ups on both the city council and school board.
Clarke is one of three new faces on the council and is the first woman to represent District 8 in the city’s history. She said that she comes from a line of strong women.
“My mother was very determined,” Clarke said. “She was unlike any other woman I’ve ever met. She was a mother of five, and she was a lifelong educator and learner.”
She said her mother was a fine tailor, a home economics teacher, an engineer, and a tinkerer.
“She was this fascinating person and just did daring things all the time,” she said. “So that’s my genetic makeup.”
Clarke said she’s “doubly honored and humbled and grateful” to have won her election and become the first woman to represent her community on the city council.
This is not the first time Birmingham’s city council has been mostly made up of women. In fact, women held a five-member majority on the body for the 12-year period between the 2005 and 2017 elections. Since city council elections began in 1963, Birmingham has always had at least one woman in its ranks. Over the years, a total of 22 women have served on the council.
Nationwide, representation by women on city councils has been historically low, although it is on the rise, said Andrea Eckelman, assistant political science professor at the University of Montevallo.
“The number of women on city councils has grown a lot since the 70s and 80s,” Eckelman said. “Depending on the city size, it’s grown from about 24% to 36%, somewhere in those ranges.”
Even on Birmingham’s city council, there are still trails left to blaze. Districts 2 and 3 have never been represented by a Black woman and District 5 still has yet to be represented by a woman at all.
Despite some progress, though, in Alabama at large, the representation of women in legislative bodies is still low. Montgomery, Mobile, and Huntsville have only two women each on their city councils. In Tuscaloosa, there is only one woman among its seven members.
Stacie Propst is the founding director of Emerge Alabama, a group that recruits and trains women to run for office. She said that in some parts of the state, the problem is even worse.
“That’s an unusual state of affairs,” Propst said of Birmingham’s council. “Most of the city councils around Alabama are 100% male.”
Wardine Alexander, who returns to the city council as its president, echoed Propst’s sentiments.
“We know there’s a gender gap — gender-related disparities that we see in politics,” Alexander said.
The in-roads women have made over the years, though, are the result of many factors.
“When researchers interview women about running for office, women report at a higher rate needing to be asked to run for office,” Eckelman said. “It’s indicative of the historical nature of politics, that it was a ‘man’s place’ for so long that women just needed somebody to say, ‘Hey, I think you’d be good at this.'”
Groups like Emerge Alabama are hoping to fill that role. Propst said that since 2018, every Democratic woman to run for state office has been trained by Emerge. In fact, LaTonya Tate, who will become the first woman to represent District 9 on the city council in over two decades, was an Emerge candidate.
“The skillset and the tools that Emerge gave me just put a lid on me deciding to run for office,” Tate said. “I knew it was the time to pursue what I had been preparing for the last 20 years.”
Andrea Benjamin, associate professor in the University of Oklahoma’s Department of African American Studies, said women and men sometimes think about what “politics” means in different ways. Women may not see their experiences as “political” experiences as frequently as men do.
“For women, politics is connection — it’s helping people to solve problems,” Benjamin said. “If you ask women ‘do you consider yourself political?’ they may say no.”
However, Benjamin said that if the question was framed differently, there might be a different answer.
“You might say, ‘How are you helping you community?’ and women will give you example after example,” she said.
Propst said it’s important that in a state with a slight majority of women, diversity is reflected in places of power.
“We are the majority of adults in this state, and we need to start acting like it as the majority,” Propst said. “Let’s be the majority we are. That’s our goal.”
Propst also emphasized that it’s important for women to have representation in government because they often lead differently than men.
“Generally women, in a majority way, care about education and health care and all the things we worry about because of our families,” she said. “We think more globally and more completely about family — about community.”
“Women have always been leaders in the community, in their families,” Council President Alexander said of the majority women council. “So I’m hoping that not only will you see the strategic thinking, but you’ll see the compassion that women might bring. They’re always having to think outside of the box when it comes to managing families and managing their jobs.”
Councilor Clarke said that women may also bring a more nurturing culture to city leadership.
“Women are a little more emotionally complex, and I would say basically more nurturing and tend to care that everyone is taken care of,” Clarke said. “But I think we all need a little more nurturing after what we’ve been through and what we’re going through. So I see it as a good thing.”
Alexander, Clarke, and Tate all said they’re excited about the new majority and the balance it will bring to the council.
“Balance is always good,” Clarke said. “And because it’s a nine person board, it can’t be 50-50. Almost balanced is close enough for me. Tipping a little toward women can make us all feel safe.”
Alexander said that she is energized by the reality that Birmingham voters chose to elect a mostly-women group of councilors.
“I’m excited that the voters and the city of Birmingham saw the value of diversity, equity and inclusion by voting and each of us and in our various districts,” Alexander said.
Having a majority women city council can also help pave the way for more diverse representation in the future, even in the city’s highest office. Birmingham has never elected a woman as mayor, although Carole Smitherman served as acting mayor for about a month after Larry Langford was forced from office in 2009.
Propst said it comes down to the old saying: “If you can see it, you can be it.”
“If young women are tuned in, it can definitely make them think: ‘Hey, I could also be a city council member,'” Benjamin said.
“As more little girls see women in positions of power,” Eckelman said, “those little girls are more likely to grow up saying, ‘Oh, this is a woman’s place, right? A woman’s place is in is in a position of power in politics.”
President Alexander said that the council’s new makeup can send a strong message to people like her 16-year-old granddaughter.
“I hope that she and young women just like her see that we are beginning to break that glass ceiling,” she said. “I hope they see that our residents are looking at inclusion, diversity, and equity when they go to the ballot box — that they view us as equal citizens able to function in these roles in city government.”
Alexander also said that as for having a woman elected mayor one day, “the sky is the limit.”
“I’m hopeful that as we progress as a city, and that again, we just keep in mind inclusion and diversity,” she said. “I see that as an opportunity in our future.”