Twenty years ago Minneapolis elected a majority of women to its city council. City Council President Barbara Johnson thinks Minneapolis was among the first cities in Minnesota to achieve that status. There has been a female majority on the council for most of the past 20 years.
Working style is key
How is the Minneapolis City Council different with a female majority? Johnson thinks there’s a definite difference in the way women govern. “One difference is a more collaborative work plan,” said Johnson, who represents Ward 4 (northwest Minneapolis). “There’s more working together than you see when men [are in] the dominant positions.”
Ward 7 council member Lisa Goodman agreed. She feels that because the council is a small body (13 members), a collegial working style is especially important. “Women’s style is different for sure,” she said. “I think we’re more attuned to pleasing people and solving problems. We want to make people happy.” That translates not only into working together as a group but also to serving constituents: “There are massive amounts of problem solving,” Goodman said, for example, “if your alley isn’t plowed-if you want to build a deck in a certain location.”
Power and perception
The relationship between the city council and the mayor can be a complicated one, especially since Minneapolis’ governance includes a “weak mayor” system where the city council holds much of the executive decision-making authority. And when the balance of power is held by women, that can lead to complications, Johnson said, especially when dealing with outside male-led companies and organizations.
There are a number of Fortune 500 companies in Minneapolis, none of which are headed by women, Johnson said. “It can be harder to get their attention. I make it clear that because of our weak mayor system, everything gets done by the council, and we have a committee process to follow.”
Goodman is no shrinking violet. She is often outspoken and this has led, she said, “to being categorized as a ‘bitch.’ And when two women on the council disagree, it’s a ‘catfight.’ I represent downtown, and deal with the business community a lot. A man is a ‘strong leader, I’m a bitch.’ Or ‘she’s from Chicago, she’s a little brash.’ It’s been a problem for a lot of women.”
Cheerleaders and role models
Both women see themselves as boosters for the city. Goodman said, “For me, it’s about making people see and love the city as much as I do.”
“I had good training,” said Johnson, referring to her late mother, Alice Rainville, who served on the council from 1975 to 1997. Rainville was elected the council’s first female president, and led the council during the 1980s, when there was still a male majority.
“I share my mother’s interest in seeing that the city is viewed as a positive place to live and do business in.” Johnson has a unique perspective about women in city office, in part because of her mother’s experience. “My mother was a role model for my [three adult] daughters,” Johnson said.
“Most important, we’re leading by example, showing young girls ‘you can do it,’ Goodman said. She cautioned, though, that although the city council is women-led, we still have a long way to go for women to achieve parity in other government bodies.
“At the womenwinning luncheon people were applauding that we have [34.8 percent] women in the Legislature. I’m disappointed we have that few. I ran for my seat because no women were running.”
Did you know?
The Minneapolis city council consists of 13 members, each of whom represent a geographic area called a ward. Four women have served as council president:
• Alice Rainville, 1980-1989
• Sharon Sayles Belton, 1990-1994
• Jackie Cherryhomes, 1994-2002
• Barbara Johnson, 2006-present