In the same week that the nation was shocked – shocked! – to learn that top women college athletes were treated as second-class citizens by the NCAA, it came to my attention for the first time that a majority of the San Antonio City Council is female. 

That is strange – not that women are a majority, but that I hadn’t noticed, even though it’s been true for nearly two years. 

If the Council hadn’t passed a resolution last week addressing the persistent wage gap between men and women, I’d still be unaware. 

Part of the reason, I think, is that it’s not a surprise. We’ve been electing a lot of women in recent years. Eleven of our 14 civil district judges in Bexar County are women. Half the 10 criminal district courts have women on the bench. We haven’t done as well in the Legislature. Just three of our 10-member House delegation are women, but half the four senators whose districts include parts of the county are women. We’re still waiting to send a woman to Congress. 

Women have long exercised political muscle here. I wrote back in the 1970s of the power of women in a town that was “tri-macho.” Historically its culture was cowboy, Mexican, and military. Yet we were the largest city in the nation with a woman mayor – and Lila Cockrell was a strong mayor in a weak-mayor system. Two of the citizen organizations wielding the most power in those days, Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) and the San Antonio Conservation Society, were led mainly by women. And the Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO was headed by a woman.

The lesson, I suggested, was similar to one I learned earlier in my career while covering the decidedly patriarchal Catholic Church and the extraordinary courage of nuns: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

How long that tri-macho culture kept women off City Council is remarkable and adds considerable import to their current achievement. The first woman didn’t sit on City Council until 1952. That was 32 years after the 19th Amendment was ratified, establishing women’s suffrage. (Texas women had won the right to vote in the all-important Democratic primary two years earlier.) 

Mrs. Manfred J. Gerhardt and Thelma Stevens were just blips on the screen. Gerhardt was appointed to replace a man named George M. Roper, who had resigned. She was replaced by a man less than a year later. Stevens was elected to City Council in 1953 but left office the following year before her term was completed.

It would be nearly a decade before another woman was elected to City Council, and that was only because the male-dominated Good Government League, which was almost midway through a 20-year stretch of near total control of the council, had been stunned by a motorcycle-riding conservationist. Wanda Ford,  who was also the wife of famed architect O’Neil Ford, had nearly upset a GGL candidate in 1961. So in 1963, the GGL recruited Lila Cockrell, head of the League of Women Voters, for its ticket.  

As I detailed in a 2019 column, Cockrell was rare GGL council member who would and could stand up to GGL powerhouse Mayor Walter McAllister, albeit in a most ladylike manner. She would also outlast the GGL, becoming a very strong mayor in 1975 while presiding over an otherwise all-male council. In her memoir, Love Deeper than a River, she titled the chapter on that period “Eight gentlemen and a madam.”

The next election she would be joined by Helen Dutmer, a gum-chewing South Sider who was strong on water issues and good quotes. My favorite came when Cockrell’s successor, Henry Cisneros, was frustrated by Dutmer’s repeated criticism of his proposed Alamodome. He told her, “If you can’t stand the heat, Helen, get out of the kitchen.” Dutmer didn’t break chew: “I can stand the heat, Henry. It’s the smell that’s getting to me.”

When Cisneros successfully ran for mayor in 1981, he was replaced by María Antonietta Berriozábal, the first Hispanic woman to sit on the council. Her election marked another first. This was the first San Antonio City Council since the Civil War in which people of color made up a majority: five Hispanic members and one Black member on the 11-member council. 

From 1865 until the Good Government League took over in 1955, only eight Hispanic people and no Black people were elected to the City Council. The hegemony of white men was almost total for more than a century. In fact, from 1885 to 1952 every single member of San Antonio’s City Council was an Anglo male.

Under the GGL the nine-member slate for City Council was chosen in a closed meeting by a committee whose membership was secret. The practice was to include two carefully selected Hispanic businessmen or doctors for inclusion. A couple of slates included three Hispanic people, but this made no noticeable difference. These men clearly knew who put them in office. 

Beginning in 1965, a decade after it took power, the GGL placed one Black person on its ticket. City Council has ever since included one Black member – two when Ivy Taylor served as mayor from 2014 to 2017 and when Art Hall was elected from District 8, a Northwest suburban district that had previously elected only white members, in 2005 and 2007.

So after a period of 67 years during which City Council included only Anglo males, we now have an 11-member council with just three – for at least the next couple of months, anyway. Rebecca Viagran (D3) and Shirley Gonzales (D5) are up against term limits and cannot run in the May 1 election.

As an Anglo male, do I feel disenfranchised by the current council makeup? Not at all, for a number of reasons. One goes back to my childhood. My mother represented my interests at least as well as my father. Another is that there are very few gendered municipal issues. We all drive the same streets and put out our garbage with the same frequency. The issues in which gender figures, such as the pay gap, deserve to be addressed by a female majority since the male majority has not gotten the job done. 

Perhaps most importantly, we still need to recognize that as far as we have come regarding racial and sexual equality, it is more than clear that we have a long way to go. Our banks, major companies, large foundations, and other institutions are still controlled almost entirely by white men. 

We will probably only have complete societal equality when our police forces are not only fully integrated racially, but also when at least half their ranks are women. If that notion startles you, it makes my point. 

This column has been updated to correct details of the City Council’s makeup from 1952 to 1954.

Rick Casey

Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.