Wake County

Women are half the population. Now they’re half the Raleigh City Council, too.

Raleigh City Council takes the oath of office

Raleigh City Council members take the oath of office during a swearing in ceremony Monday, Dec. 4, 2017 at Memorial Auditorium.
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Raleigh City Council members take the oath of office during a swearing in ceremony Monday, Dec. 4, 2017 at Memorial Auditorium.

Nicole Stewart barely had time to talk Friday morning between dropping her two kids off at school and driving to her job with an environmental nonprofit group in downtown Raleigh.

When Stewart becomes a new member of the Raleigh City Council, she knows her life will become even busier.

“I was asked a lot by all sorts of people how I was going to balance it all,” said Stewart, 36. “But before I decided to run, that was the first thing I thought about. ... I’ve never heard someone ask a man running for office how he’s going to balance it all. They don’t get asked that, and that was really frustrating.”

For only the second time in Raleigh’s history, half of the eight seats on the City Council will be filled by women after a swearing-in ceremony Monday. Stewart and fellow newcomer Stef Mendell were elected to the board, along with incumbent member Kay Crowder and incumbent Mayor Nancy McFarlane.

Raleigh’s shift to an evenly divided male-female council reflects a larger trend in which more women are running for office – and winning.

Throughout the country, 35,000 women have expressed interest in running for office since the November 2016 election, according to advocacy groups Emily’s List and She Should Run.

Since 2015, North Carolina’s three largest cities – Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh – have been ruled by women mayors.

“I think women are absolutely more motivated to run,” said Leisha DeHart-Davis, an associate professor at UNC’s School of Government. “My impression is that women are seeing political issues being addressed very narrowly and not taking into account a range of concerns, and I expect we’re going to see an increasing number of women running in the coming years.”

McFarlane, Mendell and Stewart all said women have been more politically energized in the past year, after the election of President Donald Trump. Many women were disappointed that Hillary Clinton failed to become the country’s first female president.

There’s also another factor: voters.

In Raleigh’s October election, 29,002 women cast ballots, compared to 23,218 men. The difference was starker for the mayoral runoff in November, with 30,472 women and 23,409 men voting.

But women are still the minority in politics, from Washington, D.C., to many city hall chambers. Young mothers like Stewart are especially rare.

Serving on the Raleigh council is technically a part-time gig, but the job’s demands have grown with the city. Regular meetings, including some in the evenings, can make it tough for people with children and careers.

Stewart and 40-year-old Corey Branch are Raleigh’s only elected officials under the age of 59.

McFarlane, who was first elected to the council in 2007, said she waited until her son was in his senior year of high school before she entered city politics.

“It pretty much is a full-time position,” McFarlane said. “So it does really kind of limit who can do it. You have to have a job where they allow you time off, or you have to be retired or be in a position where you’re independently wealthy.”

In 1947, Ruth Wilson became the first woman elected to citywide office in Raleigh. But for the next 22 years, only men served on the council.

Isabella Cannon served a single term as Raleigh’s mayor from 1977 to 1979 and was the only woman to hold the office until McFarlane was elected in 2011.

The last time the council was evenly split by gender was from 1987 to 1989.

Mendell, 63, said having more women in government is good for everybody.

“What’s really positive about Raleigh now is that there will be more role models for young people, and not only young women,” she said. “I think it’s important for young women, but I think it’s important for young men and boys to see women in positions of power and understand that everyone can participate in society.”

DeHart-Davis from UNC said research suggests government functions differently – and is perceived differently – when more women are involved.

“Whenever citizens see government as being representative of the community being served, those citizens also see that government as being more legitimate, and in some cases they’re more cooperative and supportive of government action,” she said.

DeHart-Davis also pointed to research showing that women in state and national legislative bodies tend to “pay more attention to how issues affect a broader range of community members.”

Stewart and Mendell both said they hope to see more people from different ethnic backgrounds and religions win elections in Raleigh. Shelia Alamin-Khashoggi and Zainab Baloch ran unsuccessfully for at-large council seats this year. Either would have been the first woman of color on the board.

“I wish we had more diversity on council in terms of ethnicity and other things,” Mendell said. “We’ve obviously come a long way, but we have a long way to go.”

Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan

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