Whether or not by coincidence, Steamboat sticks to tradition with another majority-female City Council
Paula Cooper Black still remembers the uncomfortable feeling she had when a former male council member handed the late Rita Valentine a pink gavel when she became president of Steamboat Springs City Council.
The same man later asked the 1988 council — the city’s first to see every seat held by a woman — who would be baking brownies for council meetings, and nicknamed the women “the pink council.”
“It was condescending,” Cooper Black said.
Throughout her eight years on council, Cooper Black remembers multiple occasions in which men would call her husband and ask him to sway her decision on a city issue, as they believed he had more power than she did, despite the fact she was an elected official and he was not.
But times were a little different in 1988 than they are in 2021, Cooper Black added. Back then, she said, women weren’t as quick to speak up about sexism or inappropriate comments as doing so would have been considered taboo.
“You just sort of put up with it and got on with business,” she said. “I would like to think we have evolved since then.”
Then and now
Steamboat celebrated its first all-female City Council in 1988 and since then, the city has carried a tradition of having councils held by female majorities.
That tradition kept true in this year’s election, which brought in four new candidates, three of whom are women, including Dakotah McGinlay, Joella West and Gail Garey. In all races where a woman ran against a man, the woman was elected.
Though women will hold a five-person majority on council, outgoing council members Sonja Macys and Lisel Petis believed the women were elected because of their qualifications and dedicated campaigns, rather than their gender.
“Looking at the people who got elected, the women who run their races worked very hard, and they didn’t take anything for granted,” Macys said. “They knew that they had to prove themselves, that they had to go out and scrap for every single vote, that they had to earn the respect for every person in this community.”
Petis agreed, and said she believes women often have to prove their qualifications for a position, whereas men are automatically assumed to be qualified.
“Certainly, there are men in town who will refer to women in places of power as ‘kiddo’ or those things that you don’t see happening to men, so I think that’s a piece of it,” Petis said. “I think there is something to be said that a lot of times men can step into a position and people automatically believe in them.”
Kathy Connell, a member of City Council from 1995 to 2003 who served as council president from 1999 to 2003, remembers men standing over her, physically looking down on her and verbally berating her in public meetings.
“Being a woman and being short, I felt like it was easier to give me backlash than it would be if there had been a man,” Connell said.
Connell said in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the community was facing similar “growing pains” to the ones it’s facing now: more tourists were flocking to town, Steamboat Resort was expanding and what was once a small ranch town was rapidly becoming a world-class vacation destination.
“The community is no longer a small, little town,” Connell said. “We are way up there with the big guys, and not everyone likes that.”
What the community wants
McGinlay ran for City Council because she believed in her ideas. But she knew the task would be difficult, running as a 26-year-old woman against three male opponents, one of whom previously served as council president.
McGinlay knew she had her work cut out for her, and she felt any intimidation that may have come from being the youngest candidate and living in town for less than 10 years was quickly swept away by her passion and desire to serve the city.
She knocked on dozens of doors, sat down with clubs and groups to ask what was important to them and put up fliers and posters with her name around town.
“I think it was important that the community felt heard,” she said. “They wanted to feel that someone thought it was important enough to go to their door and listen to what their needs are.”
Garey felt her platform — which centered around environmental sustainability and preserving Steamboat’s character — also resonated with voters, which brought her victory against a longtime Steamboat local and well-known Realtor.
“I think it’s just that the people who were elected are representative of the views of the community,” Garey said. “From my perspective, I come from a diverse background, and I think we all bring different things to the table.”
While being able to connect with the community is not gender exclusive, Connell believes women can bring a specific sense of listening and caring that men sometimes do not.
“Because of the way we’ve been brought up in our society, women tend to be who people go to for nurturing or understanding, much more than men, traditionally,” Connell said.
Macys, who served two terms on council, believes some of the women running may have been seen as underdogs, which caused them to campaign with more tenacity than their male opponents.
“I think a lot of people were surprised who ended up winning, and they won because they worked as hard as they did,” Macys said.
West, whose opponent had previously served multiple terms on council, said she believed she earned the victory because her ideas resonated with community members. Still, she knew the campaign would be a challenge.
“I knew that I had a very serious opponent who was well-known in town, well-liked in town and who had experience on council, so that was challenging,” West said.
Though three of the four winning candidates happened to be women, West said she felt voters were looking for candidates with outside experience and different ideas, and the candidates’ gender wasn’t necessarily relevant.
“It wasn’t that people were looking for women, it was people were looking for a way of thinking,” West said. “I think that the four of us tapped into the mood in this town, and the concerns that everyone has about the constant more and more visitors.”
Though Steamboat has seen several majority-female councils, its tradition of female leadership did not begin with government. Rather, it can be traced back to the area’s Western heritage.
“Being a traditionally ranching town where a lot of women were just as much in charge of ranches as men were, that created kind of this strong woman feel from the beginning,” said Petis, who grew up in Steamboat. “It’s probably that we’re a ranching town that breeds strong women, and we also attract extremely qualified women that rise to the top.”
West said that while social justice movements around the country have led more women to seek leadership positions in recent years, she believes Steamboat’s new council is much more of a longstanding tradition than a result of any national changes.
“There have been women on this council forever, and it wasn’t because anybody had to stand up and holler about equality; that was just the way Steamboat was,” she said. “This has always been a town of extremely strong women.”
Whether by coincidence or not, the council’s new female majority may be particularly adept to the unique set of issues facing the city, specifically considering the city’s conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion.
Macys and Petis had sat on the city-led DEI committee, which includes members from various marginalized communities and discusses how to make the city more inclusive to such communities. But as the two will leave council, two new members will need to be appointed to the committee. Both said they felt they had more to share on the committee because they understood sexism and challenges that may be unique to women.
“I’m not going to discount that male people can advance social initiatives, but I will say that I think women are a little more sensitive to it, being a minority class,” Macys said.
Macys said women may also bring a different perspective to issues such as the child care crisis, as women are traditionally expected to handle caretaker roles.
“Those are the struggles of the real people in this town,” Macys said.
To step up and serve
According to Pew Research Center, women held only 38% of high political offices and 43% of top business executive positions in 2015.
While women are underrepresented in high-profile positions, Petis said she believes more women run for council because they can be more service-oriented.
“More women are passionate about helping their community, not that men aren’t, it’s just that more women are willing to step up and serve because they care,” Petis said. “I also think just the best person won, and they just happened to be women.”
Between 1988 and 2021, Steamboat has seen councils where men represented the majority, Cooper Black recalled. Seeing three new women take seats inspired Cooper Black, who still serves as a mentor for local female leaders.
“I think our future looks a lot brighter because of the diversity of the council we just elected,” she said.
To reach Alison Berg, call 970-871-4229 or email aberg@SteamboatPilot.com.
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