(From left) Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) and Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) look around Confluence Park.
Councilwomen (from left) Shirley Gonzales (D5) and Rebecca Viagran (D3) will wrap up their final terms on City Council in 2021. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

City Council may soon have a majority of women serving as members for only the second time.

From Jan. 17, 2008, to May 31, 2009, six out of 10 Council members were women, according to a list of City officials dating back to 1837. Mary Alice P. Cisneros (D1), Sheila D. McNeil (D2), Lourdes Galvan (D5), Delicia Herrera (D6), and Diane Cibrian (D8) were elected in 2007, and Jennifer V. Ramos was appointed to replace the resigning District 3 council member in 2008. Her appointment pushed the gender balance over to the women, and women have not regained the majority on City Council since then.

Three women currently serve on City Council. If the three female candidates in the June 8 runoff elections in District 2, District 4, and District 6 win their races, they will increase the number of women serving on Council to six.

Nationwide, women hold less than one-third of elected offices, according to the Reflective Democracy Campaign. The campaign’s 2017 study of the top 200 U.S. cities shows that women hold 30 percent of city council seats. And a mere 14 cities – or 7 percent – of those 200 have a majority-women city council.

Austin became one of the cities to have a majority-women city council in 2015, when voters elected more women than men for the first time in its history. The city manager at the time decided to organize a training workshop for City employees on how to talk to a female-dominated City Council, the Austin American-Statesman reported. This included inviting a speaker who claimed that women tended to ask more questions and shied away from financial arguments, the Statesman reported.

Brenda Choresi Carter, director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign, said there is a tendency to essentialize women as political leaders in a way that makes them too simplistic. While gender matters, it’s more because gender shapes politicians’ life experiences and perspectives that they bring to the table, she said.

“I don’t think there’s anything inherently different, better or worse, as women as leaders,” Carter said. “But the thing I would say is consistently different is that [women] are used to … structurally having less power than men, and that’s an incredibly important perspective about society they bring to political office.”

The first women who served as San Antonio City Council members clearly worked in a male-dominated world. Mrs. Manfred J. Gerhardt was appointed to Place 6 in 1952 to replace resigning Councilman George Roper, according to City records. Women continued to be listed as their married names for more than a decade after that; even former Mayor Lila Cockrell ran for the Council as Mrs. S. E. Cockrell Jr. in 1963 and 1965.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran is serving her fourth and final term as District 3 councilwoman. She said that though it’s gotten better, she still sees a “broletariat” mentality in City government, where men support other men no matter what.

But women have made a point of amplifying each other as well, she said. For example, she, Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), and Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) have learned to acknowledge each other when they contribute to policy or conversation but are not getting the rightful credit for doing so.

Viagran added that supporting women includes lifting up women throughout all of the city of San Antonio and continuing the women mentorship program at the City started by then-City Manager Sheryl Sculley.

“We will continue to make sure women’s issues and women’s voices are brought to the table in all decisions that are made,” she said.

Like Viagran, Gonzales, and Sandoval, District 4 candidate Adriana Rocha Garcia and District 6 candidate Melissa Cabello Havrda are Latina, while District 2 candidate Jada Andrews-Sullivan is African-American. Denise Gutierrez-Homer has requested a recount in the District 2 race after missing the runoff by 59 votes.

Gonzales said she was excited to see how many women of color could join City Council in June.

“We have potential to make policy decisions impactful not just for women but for minority women,” she said.

If San Antonians do elect three more women to City Council, Viagran said, it shows the city is ready for more women leaders.

“It’s about time,” she said. “I think San Antonio is saying it’s about time for this.”

Sandoval said having a diverse City Council – in gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and more – matters because more of San Antonio will be represented that way. But she said she hopes for the day that having a majority-female Council wouldn’t be an impressive feat.

“I wish this wasn’t big news,” Sandoval said. “I wish this could be the case any given year. What’s important that whoever is elected can represent the community that they serve, and our community is varied. It is going to take a Council that is also varied to represent our community.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.