City Council members serving on San Antonio’s majority-female City Council will cast their first votes Thursday as speculation abounds about what that could mean for local policymaking.
Some of that conversation is based on gender stereotypes: women are nicer and get along better, women lead with emotion, women tend to focus on policy agendas aimed at children and social services. Conversations with new and senior City Council members this week, however, dispelled most of those assumptions.
Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6) has heard such conversations surrounding the new, majority-female Council and rejects the clichés.
“I’m an individual. I am unique,” Havrda said. “You can’t lump me into [a voting bloc] with the other women on Council. I am a product of that District 6 culture and identity.” she said.
Havrda, Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2), and Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) were inaugurated Wednesday afternoon after winning runoff elections on June 8. They join three female colleagues on the dais: second-term Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), fourth-term Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), and fourth-term Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3). It is only the second time in the city’s history that City Council has had a female majority.
The new council majority won’t necessarily be focusing exclusively on policies aimed at improving the lives of women and children, council members said. Figuring prominently on the agenda are jobs and economic growth, transportation, and other issues that affect all San Antonians.
As for the trope of women being largely driven by maternal instinct, Havrda said most of the men who have served and serve now on City Council also want to protect vulnerable populations, just as she does.
“It’s my duty to help them … not necessarily because I’m a woman,” said Havrda, who is an attorney.
Her agenda isn’t female, she added, it’s simply to represent her constituents.
“When women gain a majority, you have these assumptions that they’re all going to get together and have the same issues,” said Sharon Navarro, a University of Texas at San Antonio professor who researches women and Latinos and Latinas in politics. “There’s a temporary disconnect between politics and policy.”
During the previous majority-female Council a decade ago, Navarro noted, San Antonio didn’t see a big shift in priorities.
“There was some camaraderie, but at the end of the day they had the interest of their districts in mind,” she said of the six councilwomen who served from Jan. 17, 2008, to May 31, 2009. “It’ll be interesting to see what they accomplish as a cohort of women … but it comes down to serving their constituency.”
Gone are the days when women elected to office could be pigeonholed, said Vicky Elias, associate professor of sociology at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, who focuses on gender, marriage and family, and human sexuality.
Before women’s rights movements spurred more women to purse public office, Elias said, women had “a more limited social script – of course we’re going to find more pronounced patterns [of behavior].
“Those scripts are so broad now, it makes it hard to make a prediction” about how they will govern, she said.
While women may be better generally at communication and empathy, their gender identity won’t make or break policy, said Garcia, an assistant professor of marking at Our Lady of the Lake University.
While she will have a focus on family-related issues, she and her colleagues will also be tackling planning and economic issues that “might not be something traditionally championed by women,” she said.
That is an advantage, Elias said, as women “may have more license to look at a broader ranger of issues … to breach the gender boundaries.”
“Men who reach those boundaries [sometimes] pay a social penalty” by appearing feminine, she said. “They support [family-related issues] but they may not be able to champion them.”
In San Antonio, both men and women on City Council have prioritized neighborhood and family issues. For example, a joint effort between Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) and Gonzales brought the discussion of increased funding for domestic violence initiatives forward to the Council recently.
Viagran said she looks forward to having a majority-female, majority-Hispanic Council because “that’s truly a reflection of San Antonio’s demographics.”
In her six years serving on Council, Viagran said she has seen differences in ways her male and female colleagues interact and collaborate on issues.
“Personally, I do think women work differently on Council,” Viagran said. “I think you’re going to see a change with this dynamic of majority women. … I don’t think we should be ashamed of saying it. It’s just that we’re different and we’re going to work at a different capacity.”
That won’t manifest in a large shift of priorities, she said. “We’re [already] engaged with domestic violence, and human trafficking has always been an issue, but now women’s voices are going to be layered as a majority on top of those things.”
And those voices may not always agree.
“We have some really talented women on the Council who actually do their research, talk to stakeholders,” Garcia said. “We’re not always going to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the same things.”
While San Antonio celebrates its female-majority Council, Elias said it’s important to emphasize that the struggle for equality isn’t over.
“We tend to have an assumption that once we gain a right or we make one accomplishment, it’s like we can’t go backwards,” she said. “That’s not true.”