LaToya Cantrell, First Woman Mayor of New Orleans

New Orleans, one of my two favorite cities in the United States, is celebrating its 300th birthday. Three hundred years of vibrant history, but also three hundred years without a woman mayor—until last month.

LaToya Cantrell became the first female mayor of New Orleans when she was sworn in on May 7. There was no question that the next mayor would be a woman, as her opponent in the final election was also a woman. She beat Desiree Charbonnet with 60% of the vote.

One drawback for Cantrell was the fact that she was not born in the city of New Orleans, as was every mayor for almost all of the last six decades. She did move there when she was eighteen, to attend Xavier University of Louisiana. After earning a BA in sociology, she studied executive management training at the Kennedy School of Government.

Her skills came to the fore after Hurricane Katrina when the Broadmoor district of New Orleans was flooded by the levee break. The city decided that the Broadmoor section of the city, and a number of others would be turned into green spaces. As president of the Broadmoor Improvement Association, Cantrell and her compatriots mobilized as they revitalized the area for business and housing. Later Cantrell was elected to the city council, which was the springboard for her election as mayor.

Her inauguration was typical New Orleans. It began, teetering on that thin line between Church and State, with a Mass at St. Louis Cathedral. It ended with the mayor and her daughter exiting with umbrellas lined with feathers and huge white plumes, a typical New Orleans “second line.”

The inauguration itself was rich with women. The emcee for the day was Donna Brazile, former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman, and New Orleans native. Music was provided by New Orlean’s only female brass band, The Original Pinettes, and Irma Thomas, known as the “Soul Queen of New Orleans.”

Mayor Cantrell proclaimed “Almost 300 years, my friends—and New Orleans, we’re still making history.” In this year when so many women are running for office, let’s hope she is on the front end of a long curve upwards.

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Forward Momentum in the Senate

There were two major developments for First Woman in the U.S. Senate this year. One received extensive press coverage; the other did not.

Tammy Duckworth

Tammy Duckworth, Senator from Illinois, holds many firsts:

–First Woman double amputee of the Iraq War

–First disabled Woman elected to Congress

–First Asian-American Woman to represent Illinois.

–And now, the First Woman in the U.S. Senate to give birth while in office.

Considering how many women give birth, and that this country was founded 242 years ago, this seems almost inconceivable, but Senator Duckworth was the first. While she was pregnant the Senator raised the issue of family leave with the Senate. She advocated for benefits for families with young children or other family needs. She also helped overturn the prohibition of children on the Senate floor. After her baby was born, she brought her infant with her to the Senate floor, and made the news. A woman, with a baby, in public, doing her job.

Cindy Hyde-Smith

While Tammy Duckworth has received significant press, Cindy Hyde-Smith has not. Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi retired in April, for health reasons. At that time the Republican Governor of Mississippi, Dewey Phillip Bryan, appointed Cindy Hyde-Smith to fill Cochran’s term. She has indicated that she will run for the seat this November, hoping to utilize her background in agriculture and commerce to win support.

Cindy Hyde-Smith is not only the First Woman Senator from the State of Mississippi, she is, in fact, the First Woman to represent Mississippi in Congress. Perhaps, the long dry spell is not surprising, given that Mississippi did not ratify the Nineteenth Amendment that gave women the right to vote until 1984. But in Mississippi’s defense, there are still 20 states that have never sent a woman to the Senate. Do the math: 20 out of 50 states (or 40%) have never elected a woman Senator.

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Only 52 women have served in the Senate in the span of U.S. history; and only 23 are serving at this time. Once again, do the math: 23 women out of 100 (or 23%) represent more than 50% of the population. They have said that, given past progress, it will take another 100 years for women to achieve parity in Congress. Perhaps Senators Duckworth and Hyde-Smith are barrier-breakers who can speed up the trajectory for women’s success.

 

 

Lives of Passionate Dedication

When First Women leave us, it is worthwhile to pause and learn what their lives taught us. Louise Slaughter served in Congress until the end of her life; Jeannette Woldseth fought to save lives as she was losing her own. Both show how a passion for others can fill a life.

Louise Slaughter (1929-2018)

Louise Slaughter was a U.S. Representative from New York, the First Woman to chair the House Rules Committee. When she died in March of this year, she was the oldest member of Congress and the last member of Congress who had been born in the 1920s.

While living in the Kentucky coal mining region, her sister died of pneumonia, firing an interest in health issues for Slaughter. At the University of Kentucky she earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and a master’s in public health.

It is no surprise that she was responsible for securing funding for the first time for breast cancer research at the National Institutes of Health (an earmark of $500 million) and worked for other health issues. She co-authored, along with Senator Joe Biden, the Violence Against Women Act. She later worked with Senator Christopher Dodd to establish a Woman’s Progress Commemorative Commission to monitor historic sites dedicated to women.

Jeannette Woldseth (1953-2018)

Jeannette Woldseth was the First Woman full-time paid firefighter in the state of Washington. She was 23 in 1977 when she joined the Bellevue Fire Department, after serving as a volunteer firefighter there. Her father had also been a volunteer firefighter and her grandfather had driven horse-drawn wagons to fires in Seattle during his career as a firefighter, so her choice was clearly in her blood.

She progressed to captain and was known for her precision and focus. When she first got breast cancer, she had a double mastectomy. When it recurred and had metastasized, she began fundraising money for other cancer victims, knowing the funds would not benefit her. Even as she was dying she focused on saving the lives of others.

Women Head Dallas Justice System

The justice system in Dallas, Texas is now headed by three women of color. All three have walked into messes but, being women, they can probably handle it.

Renee Hall is the First Woman chief of the Dallas Police Department, beginning her position in September, 2017. She walked into a department that loses officers so routinely they are short 10% of the officers they need. Pay is low; pensions are in trouble; morale is negative. The challenge is substantial.

However, Hall may well be up to the task. She assumes the job after a successful stint as Deputy Chief of the Police Department in Detroit. While there she developed neighborhood policing and mentorship programs that resulted in reduced crime rates, even homicide. Pay was also low; pensions were in trouble; Detroit went through bankruptcy. It seems Hall might understand what she is up against. The City Manager of Dallas said she was hired for her “infectious presence.” As the First Woman she will need buckets of presence to overcome entrenched attitudes.

Hall will join Lupe Valdez, daughter of migrant farm workers, former Army officer, and Senior Agent at the Department of Homeland Security, who is Sheriff of Dallas County. Her election was followed closely as she was not only a woman and Hispanic, but also an openly gay candidate. The Sheriff’s department, like the police department, suffered from low morale. The department was also struggling with corruption charges and failing state and federal inspections for its jails. Valdez turned things around and is now serving her fourth term.

            Another woman, and also a woman of color is District Attorney for Dallas County, Faith Johnson. Raised in the Jim Crow South, she was a Dallas County prosecutor and then a judge for 17 years. She has a degree in psychology which should be useful, as this department lacks public trust and need an overhaul. Known for her long hours, and tough attitude, she just might be up to the challenge.

Betsy Duke – Chair of Wells Fargo Bank

As a struggling actress in a dinner theatre, Betsy Duke needed a second job. She got a part-time waitressing job but the dry cleaner where she applied didn’t hire her, so she settled for a part-time job as a teller at a local bank. And the rest of her life began. She became so enamored with banking that she supplemented her bachelor’s degree in drama with an MBA at Old Dominion University and kept moving up the ladder.

I believe the work women learn in their homes makes them good candidates for management positions. They learn to multi-task to the max and are able to handle the complexity and pressure of managing others. Likewise, they learn to clean up messes and Betsy Duke has helped clean up plenty of them.

When Betsy Duke’s business partner died suddenly, she took over management of the Bank of Tidewater. It was 1991 and almost a third of the savings and loans in the United States failed. Duke acquired failing branches and grew her bank’s position.

In 2008 Duke joined the Federal Reserve board. She warned that lenders didn’t have enough capital on hand, but Lehmann Brothers fell before adequate action had been taken. She was left to assist the Federal Reserve in righting the financial ship.

Now she has taken the helm of Wells Fargo Bank, the world’s second-largest bank in market capitalization and the third-largest in assets in the U.S. The problem is that Wells Fargo was caught in a public scandal several years ago, opening accounts for “customers” who had not requested them–another mess Duke must attempt to clean up.

Being a woman at the top is never a cakewalk but Duke has additional burdens. First of all, she does not automatically have the support of some other powerful women. Both Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Representative Maxine Waters of California have criticized the choice of Duke to run Wells Fargo. They argue that Duke had been on the Board of Wells Fargo and that leadership should have come from outside the institution.

Since Duke was only on the board a short time, and came on the board after the scandal, this argument does seem to be a bit overblown. If the past is an example, Duke will not let this criticism deter her. She will do the job she was hired to do and she will do another job as well.

Duke has not always embraced an obligation to be a role model for other women. When she became president of the American Bankers Association in 2004, the First Woman heading the organization in its then 129-year history, she downplayed her gender. She did not want others to think being a woman had any part in her obtaining the position. Now she regrets that choice and is committed to seeing herself as an example for other women. “It’s really important,” she says, “to embrace being a role model of high-visibility positions for women.”