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Women going backward in Chicago City Council

You’ve come a long way, baby. Then again, maybe not.

When the new Chicago City Council is sworn in May 18, fewer women will take the oath of office than in any inauguration ceremony in 20 years.

Twelve women will take seats in a council chambers that once featured spittoons for tobacco-chomping men. That’s down from 15 women in 2011 and 18 in 2007.

Not since 1991 have the numbers for women been so low. That year, nine women joined the City Council.

“It’s really going to be a men’s club,” said Ald. Deb Mell (33rd). ” That makes me kind of sad and disappointed. The City Council can benefit from a woman’s perspective and visibility.

“I hope that, in four years, it changes. I would love to get a women’s caucus going and identify strong women in communities. Maybe we don’t help each other enough.”

This year’s losses were fueled by men defeating women or claiming seats formerly held by women in the 7th, 15th, 17th, 18th, 29th and 41st Wards.

On the flip side, women bumped out men in the 10th and 31st Wards. And by a mere 17 votes, Mell managed to avoid a runoff and hold on to the seat her father, longtime Ald. Richard Mell, occupied four years ago.

The bottom line is that, 23 years after Anita Hill’s allegations against then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas gave birth to the so-called “Year of the Woman,” it was anything but that for women in Chicago.

Lame-duck Ald. Deborah Graham (29th), who narrowly lost her runoff to Chicago police Sgt. Chris Taliaferro, says it’s a shame.

“In all of my elected years in Springfield and the City Council, it’s very important to have women in leadership,” Graham said. “The impact of the budget. Different things that affect us as human beings a little differently. That perspective now will be minimized.

“There are certainly still some strong voices there. But we need to beef up our efforts to make sure women are included and find other ways to influence that process. When I was in the General Assembly, there were always things going on to help women get involved in the electoral process and understand issues. Sometimes, when you get that voice, folks want to change that and not have women be influential in politics.”

Graham has good reason to say that. When her political patron, former Ald. Isaac Carothers (29th), got caught up in a corruption scandal, Graham broke from Carothers.

Then, when Carothers got out of prison, he punished Graham for her independence, backing Tailaferro against her.

At least two women have followed their male colleagues to prison: former Aldermen Marion Humes (8th) and Arenda Troutman (20th). One year before pleading guilty, Troutman was defeated by a man: former police officer Willie Cochran (20th).

Former Ald. Mary Ann Smith (48th) has a theory about why the Chicago City Council is experiencing a year of the woman in reverse. With rare exceptions such as Aldermen Michelle Harris (8th) and Carrie Austin (34th), most of the City Council’s women got their start in the world of community organizing. They include Smith and her 48th Ward predecessors Marion Volini and Kathy Osterman and former Ald. Helen Shiller (46th).

But with job opportunities and the middle-class squeeze dramatically reducing the number of stay-at-home moms, fewer women have time for community organizing that served as their minor leagues of politics, Smith said.

“I remember literally walking in to see Mayor Richard J. Daley’s health commissioner in 1974 with a baby on each hip,” Smith said. “I observed people fishing in places that could have had PCBs, and I wanted a fishing advisory attached to all fishing licenses.

“That’s kind of what I’m afraid we might lose with fewer women. There’s no one more passionate than a person with a new baby. Everything that happens to that baby — what they put in their mouth, what the baby is wrapped in, the air the baby breathes” is a mother’s focus.” It adds a whole new dimension of awareness and passion.”

Volini recalled the pivotal peace-making role played by women aldermen during the darkest days of the power struggle known as Council Wars that saw 29 aldermen, most of them white, led by Edward R. Vrdolyak (10th) thwart then-Mayor Harold Washington’s every move.

“They called us ‘Beirut on the Lake,’ ” Volini said. “I didn’t see how it would ever be resolved. Everybody was so adamant. But I proposed having negotiating teams meet to work out committee chairmanships to make that equitable. That made it possible to pass a budget. I felt that was something a woman could do without alienating other members of the City Council.

“When Harold Washington died suddenly and the matter of succession was an issue, Kathy Osterman brought everyone together to her ward office, where they battled out. She was the voice who said, ‘Let’s try to do this in a reasonable way.’”

Ald. Marion Volini (right) with Aldermen Roman Pucinski (left) and Edward Vrdolyakin 1983. File Photo
Ald. Marion Volini (right) with Aldermen Roman Pucinski (left) and Edward Vrdolyakin 1983. File Photo

Smith recalled facing “arrogance” and ridicule from her most powerful male colleagues when she dared to raise issues ranging from traffic-calming and green roofs to cruelty to animals.

“There were attorney, traditional kinds of aldermen who had little regard for anti-cruelty stuff that meant a lot to the neighborhood but not a lot to those boys,” Smith recalled. “When I expanded the anti-cruelty stuff from dog-fighting to other issues like elephants, that’s when the lobbyists communicated with the old-school aldermen who tried to belittle the issue. And the message was delivered that, ‘If you go along with this, you’ll have me to deal with.’ It was like something out of a movie.”

Smith also recalled then-Ald. Burton Natarus (42nd) claiming the 48th Ward was being used as a testing ground for traffic-calming and rooftop-greening because she was then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s pet. She called it an “expression of sexism.”

Still, Smith said government has been “faster than the private sector” to embrace the idea of sharing power with women “because it would be deadly if they didn’t.

“The bottom line in government is: Do you or don’t you have the votes? With 51 percent of population, women are a force to be reckoned with,” she said.

Aldermen Anna Langford (16th) and Marylou Hedlund (48th) — Chicago’s first female aldermen — joined the City Council in 1971. A washroom had to be built for them. At the time, there was only a men’s room with a urinal behind the Council chambers.

That was the year that then-Mayor Richard J. Daley appointed Consumer Services Commissioner Jane Byrne to the largely symbolic role of co-chairman of the Cook County Regular Democratic Organization.

Byrne would go on to become Chicago’s first and only female mayor. She had to wait until last year, shortly before her death, to gain official recognition for her achievements.

Ald. Anna Langford<br>(at microphones) in 1975. File Photo by Jim Klepitsch.
Ald. Anna Langford
(at microphones) in 1975. File Photo by Jim Klepitsch.

Now, women are going backward in the City Council. They’ll hold a dozen seats when they should have 25, Volini said.

“We’re more than 50 percent of the population. We should have an equal voice in the council,” she said.

Said Michelle Harris: “I wish it was different. Women are much more sensitive and compassionate. We think differently than men. You lose the softer side of the world. But it boils down to individual communities selecting leaders of their choice. A lot of races were very contested. The person who got the seat was able to deliver a message and develop a rapport.”