116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Corridor cities improve gender equity 100 years after Iowa City elected its first female mayor
Work continues to improve gender balance in Iowa government
In 1922, Emma Harvat became the nation’s first female mayor of a city larger than 10,000 when she was elected to lead Iowa City.
One hundred years later, Corridor governments continue their push toward gender equity. Iowa City has a female majority city council, and Cedar Rapids has its first female mayor and mayor pro tem duo.
Despite progress, women still are not 50-50 partners in governing.
Megan Alter, an Iowa City Council member and mayor pro tem, said having women in governmental positions improves society for everyone.
“There's a lot of social science work and political science work that shows at a macro-level that the more that women's issues are attended to, and the more that women are participatory in the structures that help guide the advancement of a society, the better off the country is,” Alter said.
Cedar Rapids City Council member Ann Poe, the mayor pro tem, said women bring a different perspective and leadership style as natural collaborators and listeners.
“There are women out there I think that would be more comfortable coming to a female council member with an issue,” Poe said. “ … It's that gender equality, and it's part of that inclusiveness that is part of a democracy. It's important that our citizens have a right to be heard. All of them.”
Cedar Rapids Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell, who is chief executive officer of the nonprofit Women Lead Change, said she hopes her position and Poe’s position on the nine-member council are “shifting the paradigm.” The only other woman on council is Ashley Vanorny.
“I can’t stress enough the importance of everyone at the table — men and women at the table,” O’Donnell said. “That's how we get the best results.”
Since 1987, gender balance has been required by law on Iowa’s state-level boards and commissions. In 2009, the Iowa Legislature added the requirement for cities and counties beginning in 2012.
The Carrie Chapman Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University in Ames collects data from Iowa’s 99 counties for an annual report of the gender makeup of boards and commissions.
According to its 2020 report for counties:
- 67.6 percent of all reported county boards and commissions were gender-balanced, up from 58.9 percent in 2018.
- Women held 33.3 percent of county board and commission seats in 2020, up from 32.2 percent in 2018.
For cities, the report showed:
- 69.99 percent of city boards and commissions were gender-balanced, up from 63 percent in 2018.
- Women held 40.82 percent of city board and commission seats in 2020, down from 41.13 percent in 2018.
Kelly Winfrey, director of graduate education and associate professor at ISU’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, said the report promotes accountability.
“There's no mechanism really within the legislation or in the way that the state has operated to provide accountability on those measures,” Winfrey said.
While progress has been made on gender balance, the numbers have plateaued in recent years, she said.
Men and women may have similar qualifications and interest in running for office, but women are more likely to believe they’re less qualified and decide not to run, according to Issues in Governance Studies.
“Women tend to think they need to be qualified to X, Y, and Z degree,” Iowa City Council member Alter said. “But I think that tends to just be an ingrained barrier.”
When she first ran for Iowa City Council, she made other barriers such as child care part of her campaign platform to bring women’s issues to the forefront of policy.
“Women are usually juggling many, many different things and different roles, and to think of taking on yet one more might be daunting and … how would that impact family and loved ones,” Alter said.
When O’Donnell ran for mayor against incumbent Brad Hart last year, she was asked questions like, “Why don't you run for council first?” and “Could you handle it with your job?”
“I just wonder were my male counterparts asked if they were going to be able to balance work and being mayor?” said O’Donnell, the third woman in Cedar Rapids history to hold the top elected role.
The Carrie Chapman Center also offers a nonpartisan campaign training program for women.
Ready to Run Iowa workshops have been held every other year since 2007 as part of a national network founded by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Winfrey said the program is tweaked year to year, but consistent topics explain the candidate nomination process and fundraising laws in Iowa. She hopes the program helps bridge the gender gap, creates a support network and shares female candidates’ experiences.
Helping each other
Poe and O’Donnell agreed women can help other women realize that their skills and experiences could be valuable in elected office.
“It was women that encouraged both of us to expand our shores,” Poe said. “ … It's on us to help other women.”
Men also have a role to play in fostering an inclusive environment for women to run for office and serve.
“Our gender shouldn't be notable when we're in positions of power, and that requires us to raise our sons and daughters differently,” O’Donnell said.
Janice Weiner, an Iowa City City Council member who’s likely headed to the Iowa Senate next year, encourages women who want to run for government office to start at the local level.
“I'm hopeful that one of these days, we will provide things like money for transportation care so that people participate in those who might not otherwise be able to participate,” Weiner said.
Iowa City’s female majority city council helps women see themselves in government and leadership positions, Weiner added.
“You have young women coming out of high school and college and so forth,” Weiner said, “and they see that it's not only possible, but now usual for there to be female majority council, female majority on the Board of Supervisors, etc.”
Marissa Payne of The Gazette contributed to this report.