Steamboat made headlines in 1988 with first majority-female city council, but barriers still exist for local women leaders
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — After Kelly Latterman was elected president last year of the Steamboat Springs Board of Education, she was asked how old she was, if she had kids and what her husband did for a living.
When Lisel Petis floated the idea of running for Steamboat Springs City Council in 2017, friends asked why her husband wasn’t the one running.
Beth Melton, a Routt County commissioner, has been called “sweetheart” and “honey” at various conferences by male commissioners from other counties.
These are just a few examples of the sexism three of Routt County’s female leaders say they’ve faced.
Despite instances of sexism, women who shared experiences of such moments said they felt those who made such remarks did not intend to cause harm, but rather were unaware their comments and actions were offensive.
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“I don’t think most people who are engaging in sexism are doing it purposely or intentionally,” Petis said.
And while women in leadership positions still deal with sexism and misogyny, Routt County has a rich history of female leaders chairing its most important positions.
That history began in 1988, the year Paula Cooper Black was elected to Steamboat City Council after her third run. She ran for the position to represent younger residents and help the community grow, as she explained.
Cooper Black made history that year as she joined Colorado’s very first majority-female city council.
“Steamboat as a small, western, historically ranching community, is used to strong women,” she said. “In this community, we have a history of strong women being in leadership roles.”
But at that time, Cooper Black said, women were expected to cook, clean and care for children while their husbands worked.
Her husband was always supportive in watching their children while she attended city council duties, but after he passed away, she struggled to do both while by herself.
“I think women, inherently, have a different perspective of the world. I think we have different issues,” she said, relating her experiences then to the experiences of women raising kids during COVID-19.
While she and her colleagues laid the framework for women today, Cooper Black said she was inspired by women who came before her.
“I stood on the shoulders of women who went before me and who lifted me up and encouraged me,” she said.
Because of this, Cooper Black feels it’s a responsibility for her to mentor women and encourage them to run for office and seek leadership positions.
“The future is really the next generation of women,” she said.
Cooper Black has succeeded in her goal of mentoring the next generation, as many of today’s female leaders said they look to her and women in her generation as inspiration.
While Steamboat is much more progressive than some cities in its high number of female leaders, most women in leadership positions are white.
Systemic barriers, such as the high cost of living in Steamboat, language obstacles and needing to work multiple jobs, prevent many women of color from seeking leadership positions, according to Nelly Navarro, executive director of immigrant support nonprofit Integrated Community.
“When you’re the only one with an accent, you’re the only one that comes from a different background, it can be very difficult to find your voice,” she said. “There are so many people that come from other countries that have so much talent, and I feel like we lose out on that talent.”
When she arrived in Steamboat in 2004, Navarro struggled to pay her mortgage and worked two jobs — at a hotel and gas station — to get food on the table, which she said prevented her from getting involved in the community in ways she wanted to.
Navarro earned a bachelor’s degree in translation from Colorado Mountain College but was unable to use those skills to better the community until years after getting her degree.
“The cost here was a big barrier for me,” she said.
Other women of color in the community said the lack of cultural representation was initially difficult for them.
Soniya Fidler, president of UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, is a first-generation immigrant of Indian descent.
She moved to Steamboat in 2000 to ski after graduating college. Five years later, she began working in human resources at the hospital. The shift in realizing that her culture was minimally represented was an adjustment when she arrived, she said, because she grew up in a close-knit Indian community.
“There is a lack of diversity in Steamboat,” she said. “You want to preserve your culture and the great things that came out of it, but it takes a lot of work when you live in a community that lacks your specific culture.”
While Fidler sees very few who look like her in the community, she said she’s proud to be among the local female leaders.
“It’s something I’m super proud of,” she said.
As all elected female leaders in the county are white, many said they are trying to minimize barriers for women of color running for office.
For Melton, the first step was recognizing privilege and using that privilege to elevate others.
“I think as white women we have to step back a little bit for a lot of other groups,” she said. “Moving from a system where people who are not white, straight men are invited into and allowed to participate in leadership positions doesn’t come overnight.”
Latterman agreed as she added, “It’s speaking from a position of privilege that I’m able to vote.”
Her elected position in Routt County is unpaid, which Latterman said is another barrier.
“To be able to put that amount of time into an unpaid position is a barrier,” she said.
Several Steamboat women in elected positions said their experiences as women gives them a unique perspective when creating policy and working in the community.
“My experience of being a mom, and being a working mom, has been really valuable to bringing forth issues and suggestions and policy ideas that support people in that position,” Melton said in reference to county ordinances.
Latterman said her background in education policy and experience as a woman both benefit her in making policy decisions.
“There is so much room for women to bring a diverse set of opinions and perspective into leadership roles,” she said.
Similarly, women of color leading local businesses said their gender and race intersection helps them represent people with shared identities in the community.
“There’s a lot of pride with my race and what I’ve been able to achieve,” Fidler said.
Navarro, who was born in Peru, said she hopes to use her experiences as an immigrant to set an example for those in younger generations.
“I want to set an example for my daughter, I want her to pursue her dreams,” she said. “I want to be that pioneer.”
To reach Alison Berg, call 970-871-4229 or email aberg@SteamboatPilot.com.
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