No Female Mayors? 

Not for Memphis or for Shelby County, at least, not yet.

Nashville voted heavily on September 10th, doing what Knoxville did four years ago, and what Memphis and Shelby County have, so far, refused to do: They elected a female mayor for the first time. And, no, I don't see this as leading to a groundswell for Memphis mayoral candidate Sharon Webb.

click to enlarge Nashville Mayor Megan Berry
  • Nashville Mayor Megan Berry

Congratulations to Mayor-elect Megan Barry, who was also the first sitting metro councilor to be elected mayor. She beat David Fox, who seemed to be doing well, until he started campaigning like a Tea Partier, which turned off the city's voters in short order.

Of Tennessee's five largest cities, three of them will have female mayors: Knoxville (Madeline Rogero), Clarksville (former State Representative Kim McMillan), and Nashville with Barry. 

Memphis and Shelby County have certainly produced women who are qualified to lead the city and/or county, yet it has not happened. One of the several undeniably qualified female candidates was Republican Commissioner Carolyn Gates, who ran for the county mayorship in 1994, losing to Jim Rout in a crowded field.  

City Councilwoman Mary Rose McCormick ran unsuccessfully in the packed 1999 mayoral race in which then Mayor Willie Herenton won a third term. Wanda Halbert, a veteran of the Memphis School Board and the City Council, ran unsuccessfully in the 2009 race to fill the vacated fifth term of Herenton, which was won by the current incumbent, A C Wharton.

Several shots. No basket. Why not? The largest voting bloc in the city of Memphis, and Shelby County, for that matter, is African-American women. These women have gladly supported their sisters of all colors for legislative positions, giving us great fighters like the late Lois DeBerry and Kathryn Bowers, as well as current leaders such as Karen Camper, Raumesh Akbari, Barbara Cooper, and Senator Sara Kyle.

However, when it comes to electing women to executive positions such as Memphis mayor or Shelby County mayor, nada.  

While it is easy to see how Carol Chumney's 2002 loss to A C Wharton in the Democratic primary for county mayor could be attributed to the excitement that Wharton would be the first African American elected to that office, she didn't get much help from African-American women to break the glass ceiling in 2007 when she challenged Herenton (whose ceiling was long since shattered) in his final run for city mayor.

And if you wish to suggest that race was a factor in those elections, then what of the well-credentialed Deidre Malone, who lost a Democratic primary to Joe Ford, a fellow African American, for county mayor in 2010, and then lost the general election for that office to Republican incumbent Mark Luttrell in 2014? Why can't a woman be elected mayor in this town or county?

Like Barry, who had served on Nashville's Metro Council for eight years prior to her election, Malone had served on the Shelby County Commission for eight years. Malone had served as chair of the budget committee and was the first African-American female to serve as chair of the entire commission. There should have been no questions as to her qualifications to serve as the county's mayor, especially when one factors in her work with St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and her successful business, The Carter Malone Group.

Is it possible that one reason is that local African-American women are not comfortable voting for women for executive positions because of religious reasons?  

There are black churches in this town, lots of them, that are to the right of Bellevue Baptist on social issues, and these conservative (in the religious sense) women may be simply unwilling to elect a woman to an office that they believe should remain in the hands of a man. 

It's 2015, and one has to wonder why this could even be an issue, but we know from experience that social achievements often take longer to take hold in the Mid-South. It does suggest to me, however, why it is so difficult for a woman to achieve that office in Memphis or countywide. Our suburban neighbors, Germantown (Sharon Goldsworthy) and Collierville (Linda Kerley) have elected female mayors, but those are mostly white, more affluent towns.

I wish that, when running a poll of the city or county, the media outlet doing so would include these questions to all surveyed voters: Would your beliefs prevent you from voting for a female for mayor of your city or county? If so, why?

It's not scientific, but even reader comments to this article might provide an answer to this mystery. And, really, I am mystified. 

Steve Steffens is proprietor of the local political blog, Left Wing Cracker.

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