Women In Charge: How leadership on the Birmingham City Council is hoping to spark generational change
There is no time like the present for more women to run for local offices, Birmingham City Council President Wardine Alexander said, sitting behind her desk at City Hall.
“So often, when we talk about advocacy for residents or organizations in our communities that are putting in the work, it’s because women are out here trying to be difference makers,” President Alexander said. “Especially with what we saw during the height of COVID, women helped hold our communities together through volunteer work or the nurses who were on the front line giving out vaccines.”
For the first time in the city’s history the Birmingham City Council is headed by female leadership — President Alexander and President Pro Tem Crystal Smitherman, who is also the youngest member of the Council.
Together they have been working to set an example for a new generation of women in Birmingham who might be thinking about running for public office (and for those who hadn’t previously considered it).
Even with progress that’s been made in recent decades, women still make up a minority of elected public officials across the country. The gap is even wider for women of color.
According to a study conducted by the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics, “of the 356 mayors of the U.S. cities with populations 100,000 and over, 21.3 percent were women. Of the 1,621 mayors of U.S. cities with populations 30,000 and above, 23.3 percent were women.”
“For me, I think there needs to be a lot more done to educate and inform younger people about how local government works and the multitude of ways they can get involved,” Pro Tem Smitherman said. “Not just on a local level, but if you zoom out and look at it from a national perspective, there definitely needs to be an increased focus on teaching our younger generation about the different roles of government.”
Both Alexander and Smitherman agree that this trend needs to change. According to a recent study by Pew Research, only 1 in 4 Americans can identify and explain the roles of the three branches of the Federal Government. On a local level, the roles of government can be even more convoluted with city, county and state jurisdictions also coming into play.
President Alexander believes that by setting a good example through public service — and by being a positive role model — more young people would be interested in getting involved.
“When I was younger, I remember looking up to the women who were teachers in my school, because they showed me what being a leader in the community looked like and what was possible,” Alexander explained. “I continue to carry the lessons I learned from them in my current position, specifically, how it’s critically important for us to engage with our students and be positive influences on them.”
More recently, Kamala Harris paved the way by becoming the first Black woman to be elected Vice President of the United States, redefining what is possible to a whole new generation of young Black women. Even with so much progress being made on this front, Black women are still largely underrepresented in public office.
Councilor Crystal Smitherman, who is a practicing attorney, pointed to evidence of change that is already being seen in Birmingham — and across the nation — in recent years with the increased number of Black women being elected and appointed to judgeships.
“In 2016 we saw a record number of Black women be elected as District and Circuit Court judges here in Jefferson County, Alabama. If you would’ve told that to someone 30 or 40 years ago I don’t think they would’ve believed you,” Pro Tem Smitherman said. “In addition to that, in 2020 we saw a record number of Black women run for Congressional seats and as of 2021 a record number of Black women have been elected to State Legislatures across the country. We’re starting to see more inclusion, but there is still so much work left to be done to address this systemic issue.”
As of last October, the Birmingham City Council is comprised of a majority of women — five of the nine members — for the third time in the city’s history. Still seated behind her desk, in the President’s office at the end of a long hallway (that was once occupied by the likes of Bull Connor), Alexander explained how she’s grateful to be in a position to eventually pass the baton to a younger generation of female leaders.
“I’ve been lucky enough to work alongside so many amazing women who have dedicated their time, sweat and tears to improving the quality of life in Birmingham,” Alexander said. “We all know that we can’t stay in one place forever and I’m so encouraged by this new generation of women who are so hungry to make a difference. I can’t wait to see what barriers will be broken next.”