Ms. Smith comes to Washington: D.C.’s matriarchy matters

The District of Columbia has officially leaned in.

On January 5, Petula Dvorak, a columnist at the Washington Post, noted that the inauguration of newly elected District Mayor Muriel Bowser marks the beginning of a new era of D.C. women in power.

Since it achieved home rule in 1975, the District has had just two female mayors including Bowser. The first, Sharon Pratt Kelly, served from 1991 to 1995 and preceded the late Marion Barry. The return of a female to the office of the executive nearly a decade later thus signals a watershed.

This is especially the case, however, because Bowser isn’t alone. Her decision to keep on Police Chief Cathy Lanier and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson (SFS’92, G’07) means that D.C. now has more women occupying prominent positions than any other major city in the U.S.

Among this matriarchal trio, Lanier is a particular success story. A Maryland-born high school dropout who became a mother at age 15, she not only holds degrees from Johns Hopkins University and the Naval Postgraduate School but also, in 2007, became the first woman in District history to achieve the rank of police chief.

Henderson, herself a fellow Hoya (she received a bachelor’s from the School of Foreign Service and a master’s in leadership from Georgetown), was appointed by the D.C. Council in 2011 after four years as Vice Chancellor. During her tenure, D.C. public schools have seen historic increases in overall high school graduation rates, although significant achievement gaps still remain.

D.C.’s matriarchy is also a win for the representation of African-American women in District politics. Both Bowser and Henderson are African-American, joined by councilmembers Anita Bonds and Yvette Alexander. Five of the current 11 representatives on the D.C. Council are women.

But as Dvorak persuasively argues, the rise of the Triad of Female in District leadership is, and must be, just the beginning. Women’s representation in local and federal government still lags behind that of men.

At present, just five states (New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island) are governed by women. And as Dvorak notes, the 114th Congress, which assumes office this year, has “historically high” female representation—yet a man still fills four out of every five seats.

And even having women in leadership neither mitigates nor compensates for the persistence of other systemic barriers to female achievement and success. Issues of unequal economic compensation, the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields and other disciplines, and glass ceilings in the workplace all present societal challenges that women confront on a daily basis.

As Dvorak suggests, this must change. Women bring essential skillsets, talents, and competencies to the workplace and to leadership roles—many of them underutilized at present.

Making this change isn’t just morally mandated; a good portion of the country seems ready. Only time will tell if D.C.’s new matriarchy is up to the task.

Photo: Ted Eytan via flickr

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