(Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on women in local government. For part two, see Monday’s Daily Citizen-News.)
A Thomasville business executive, who also happens to be a Georgia legislator and a woman, knows what to do with high-heeled shoes and a glass ceiling.
“Wear stilettos and break it,” Darlene Taylor said.
In her fourth term as the Georgia House District 173 representative, Taylor is also the chairman of the board of Taylor Benefit Resource, a Thomasville health care benefit management business she founded.
Taylor said when she arrived in Thomasville 38 years ago, she was determined to prove herself.
“I don’t think of myself as a businesswoman,” she said. “I think of myself as a businessperson.”
Taylor said she never noticed a glass ceiling and paid no attention to what might be considered obstacles.
“I never paid attention to it if it was there,” she said. “I did what I thought I needed to do.”
The glass ceiling refers to an invisible barrier to advancement in a profession, which especially affects women and minorities, regardless of their qualifications or achievements.
Those trapped below the glass ceiling see what’s on the other side but are hemmed in by barriers that have nothing to do with whether they are qualified or can do the jobs of their male counterparts.
While Taylor said she never noticed a glass ceiling, Tifton County Commissioner Melissa Hughes considers it to be real and ever present.
“I think there is still a barrier,” she said.
During the campaign, she heard some negative things from men who still hold onto the mindset “that women have a place and government leadership is not one of them.”
Hughes said her biggest supporters have always been women.
After she won her County Commission seat, she said she noticed the disparity between the number of women in positions of leadership on national, state and local levels.
“I think society still has us as being clerks, secretaries, pencil pushers. They don’t see us as being top role models,” she said.
She does think it is getting better but the Deep South is lagging behind the rest of the country when it comes to accepting women in leadership roles.
“If we voice our opinion, they think we’re nagging, being wimpy or getting in our feelings,” she said. “But a man can ask that same question and they’ll receive it differently. I wish men would understand that we just want that same respect.”
The SunLight Project team in the coverage areas of Valdosta, Dalton, Thomasville, Milledgeville, Tifton and Moultrie, Ga., and Live Oak, Jasper and Mayo, Fla., peered through the glass ceiling and talked to women who’ve fought through it in the region.
City councils, generally speaking, tend to have as many females serving as males. The department heads vary, but few have no women serving.
For example, three of the six seats on Milledgeville City Council are held by women, and the Milledgeville Zoning Administrator/H.R. Director Mervin Graham and Milledgeville Main Street/Downtown Development Authority Director Carlee Schulte make up two of the eight department heads employed by the city.
In neighboring Putnam County, women head four of 15 city departments and two of the seven Eatonton City Council positions.
The Tifton City Council has no women serving, and four out of 14 department heads are female.
The first female City Council representative was Marianna Keesee, who was only elected in 2005 and served until 2013.
Tifton can also boast its first female mayor, Julie Smith.
Smith said while it was never her goal to enter into public service, after she was asked to run and won a seat on the City Council, it “lit a fire” to continue to work in the public sector.
Smith said she was surprised by some people’s response when she knocked on doors during her campaigns.
“Everybody was very receptive and very nice, but I actually had a couple of people say, ‘I appreciate that you’re doing this and I wish I could support you, but I just don’t feel like a woman ne to be in that job.’ And that really caught me off guard,” she said.
“You always hear the story about the good ol’ boys, that political network and I do think there is still a lot of that, unfortunately. In the South, it’s hard to break into those conversations.”
Smith said she feels many women don’t entertain the thought of holding public office because they don’t want to be exposed to that level of scrutiny.
“You do have to have thick skin,” she said.
Smith said she has been called a queen and that the rest of the City Council is her court, the kind of thing she feels would not have been said about a male mayor.
She also recalled the use of a certain derogatory term normally aimed at females.
On the flip side, she said she does receive a lot of positive comments about being a female mayor.
“Do men and women look at things differently? I think we do. Does that make one more right or more wrong than the other? I don’t think it does.
“At the end of the day as long as you’re honest, your focus is on the community and not on your own agenda, you’re trying to do what’s best for the greater good and not just your own pet project or group, then it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female.”
Smith said from a state standpoint, she feels the number of male and female mayors is fairly balanced, but for this region, there are far fewer females than males.
Cairo City Manager Chris Addleton said out of the city’s 11 staff members, five are female — city clerk, finance director, human resources director, communications director and customer service/utility office director.
No women serve on Cairo City Council.
The Valdosta City Council has two female councilwomen, District 2 Councilwoman Sandra Tooley and District 1 Councilwoman Vivian Miller-Cody, out of its total of seven council members. Teresa S. Bolden is the Valdosta city clerk.
The City of Valdosta has one female department head out of eight departments.
The Berlin City Council has three women serving out of five elected positions.
Doerun, Ellenton, Norman Park and Camilla each have two women serving on five-person councils.
Funston’s city council has no women currently serving, while Moultrie’s city council boasts four women out of six holding elected positions.
Of the 10 direct report department heads who work for the City of Thomasville, four are female.
“Of that group, women hold three of the top five highest paid positions,” said Steve Sykes, city manager/utilities superintendent.
Thomasville City Council has no female members, but it has in the past, including a woman mayor.
In Dalton, Denise Wood said growing up with four brothers may have helped prepare her to be the first and so far only woman on the Dalton City Council.
Wood was first elected 10 years ago and is now in her third term on the council.
Coming from a science background, she said, also prepared her for being the only woman in a room. She earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Indiana University in 1976.
“In my upper-level chemistry classes, I was often the only woman. Sometimes there may have been one other woman,” she said.
When she first ran for office, she said many people told her if she was elected she would become the first woman on the council.
“I think they were excited about that possibility and thought that it was time,” she said. “But I don’t think that’s why they supported me. I think they supported me because they thought that I would do what’s right for the city and could make an impact. I know that’s why I ran, not to become the first woman on the council.”
Wood said she thinks women are starting to make strides.
“We aren’t there yet. But we are making progress,” she said.
Dalton has two female department heads out of eight total departments.
White Springs Town Manager Stacy Tebo believes there is still a glass ceiling and quoted part of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 concession speech for the Democratic nomination for President.
“I believe a glass ceiling still exists,” Tebo said. “In my lifetime I have witnessed changes in terms of equality, but we aren’t there yet; these things don’t happen overnight.”
Tebo agrees there is equal opportunity for women, but it’s still not shown when looking at the percentage of women in Congress.
“There is equal opportunity for women, but I think it has evolved more slowly for those in elected positions than it has for women in appointed positions,” Tebo said. “It’s evident when you look at the percentage of men in Congress versus the percentage of women.”
The SunLight Project team of journalists who contributed to this report includes Patti Dozier, Alan Mauldin, Charles Oliver, Will Woolever, Jessie Box, Jordan Barela and team leader Eve Guevara. The SunLight Project is directed and edited by Jim Zachary and Dean Poling. To contact the team, email email@example.com.