Cosette Simon's starkest memories from serving as Fort Wayne city controller in the mid-1980s was frequently sparring with an all-male City Council, including one member who particularly liked questioning her abilities.
Simon, who served 11 days as Fort Wayne's only female mayor in 1985, also recalls Councilman Paul Mike Burns, the city's mayor from 1960 to 1964, sometimes referring to her as “that little girl.”
“He was a tough cookie and he did everything he could to try to humiliate me,” Simon said. “But I think I got the better of him once or twice.”
According to newspaper clippings from June 1984, Burns questioned Simon's qualifications after former Mayor Win Moses appointed her to replace outgoing City Controller Frank Heyman. He asked the city clerk to provide council with a review of Simon's background and was critical because, although Simon had just resigned as executive director of the YWCA, she was not a certified public accountant.
“Apparently, the people she'll be overseeing will have forgotten more than she knows about the job,” said Burns, who is now deceased.
It can be difficult for women to break into politics, a field dominated by men. There are no women on the nine-member City Council, although that will soon change. County Councilwoman Sharon Tucker is running unopposed in the Nov. 5 general election for Fort Wayne's 6th District and will take the oath of office in January.
“If you have a club and it has forever been an all-boys club, it's really hard to make it a coed club,” said Marilyn Moran-Townsend, one of four co-founders of AVOW: Advancing the Voices of Women. “Because you take that inertia of incumbency and if the incumbency is male, it's going to be very hard for it to become coed.”
The last women to serve on the Fort Wayne City Council were Republican Liz Brown, who became a state senator, and Democrat Karen Goldner. Both left office in 2011. The only woman currently serving in an elected city office is Clerk Lana Keesling.
Women sometimes feel unqualified for a position in public service, Allen County Democratic Party Chairwoman Misti Meehan said. It's not a lack of drive or desire to serve. Meehan is also a candidate for Fort Wayne City Council District 1. She decided to run as a Democrat in the general election after no party candidates stepped forward for the April primary.
Moran-Townsend and other AVOW founders said women sometimes have to be asked multiple times to run for office.
Keesling agreed that women are sometimes reluctant to seek public office.
“I think women don't a lot of times step up to the plate. They have to be asked to step up. Maybe they feel like men are much more equipped or talented to be in those positions,” she said. “But I think women are just as talented and women bring as much to the table as men have.”
Women think differently and handle issues differently, Keesling said. Women are often used to being peacemakers and finding solutions that involve compromise.
“When you bring women into the mix, I think you have a more complete process and a more complete solution that you maybe wouldn't have gotten with all men on it,” she said.
It's also sometimes difficult for women who experience a campaign defeat to run again. That's because there is “a very realistic difference between the networks that women have to help them professionally” after losing an election, compared to men, Moran-Townsend said.
“I've heard this from many men who say that when a man is asked by another man to run, they say, 'Win or lose you'll be fine. We'll take care of you. There's a future for you afterwards,'” she said. “Not so with women.”
Simon said she faced disdain from Burns for various reasons, but that doesn't mean she always let him get away with it. She recalled a discussion in 1987 regarding a state audit of the city's finances and said Burns “tried to rake me over the coals.”
“We had the audit in front of us and he was making a big deal out of a couple of very minor things,” she said. “But I knew he was going to do that and I went down to Indianapolis and got some of his old audits that had glaring problems that had been uncovered. When he started in on me I passed those out and it worked really well.”
Following the discussion, The Journal Gazette's editorial board published an editorial supporting Simon and accusing Burns of being a “paper tiger.” Simon said she also had the backing of several prominent Fort Wayne men, including businessman Ben Eisbart, Mark GiaQuinta and Moses.
“It was not easy. It wasn't easy being on the Board of Public Works and the Board of Public Safety. It was the '80s,” she said “But I had help at the same time from some men that championed me.”
Often, expectations for women are different than those for men who seek public office, Meehan said. A woman's appearance and personality, she said, often trump her position on policy issues.
“I feel like I'm putting on a uniform so I can go to work, because if I don't have the uniform on, you're not going to hear me,” Meehan said, adding she always keeps a suit coat in the car.
Meehan used a recent “lit drop” as an example. A lit drop is when a candidate or campaign team drops off literature about their race at a voter's door or mailbox. Although she wasn't dressed inappropriately, Meehan said she hadn't done her hair and wasn't wearing makeup when her team pulled up to a home where a resident was outside, leaving her self-conscious and worried about how she would be perceived.
“I did not get out of the car because I didn't want them feeling like I was not professional enough to represent them,” she said.
Meehan said she can't be sure that she would have been perceived poorly, but “didn't want to risk the chance of being flat out dismissed because I did not come off looking like I was going to a City Council meeting.”
Change is slow, Keesling said.
“A man who is aggressive or powerful is perceived completely differently than a woman is perceived,” she said. “We still deal with that. And I think a lot of races, especially when you get into a mayors' race, can get very heated. I think as we found out in presidential elections, things that are off-limits for men are not off-limits for women. Things that are said about women are not said about men.”
Politics is not a female-friendly game, said Patti Hays, another AVOW co-founder, and a District 4 City Council candidate.
“If I have a male volunteer standing with me, people are more apt to assume the man is the candidate,” she said. “As I think about it, some women find the anger that is thrown at them – and social media makes it so easy to do that anonymously or without a degree of accountability – that there are elements that can be frightening.”
As women become more prevalent in politics, verbal anger and abuse increases, Hays said, adding that female candidates are more likely to be interrupted than a male.
“When the person who is considering running for office sees that just even on TV,” she said. “... You sit back and say 'Why would I want to do that?'”
Hays was quick to note that such scenarios are more common nationally than locally, but can scare many women away.
But Tucker said women are running in record numbers. Voters, however, are sometimes still conditioned to prefer male candidates. Women have great ideas and can bring a different perspective to the table to move the needle.
“As more women step up, people have to realize there's a paradigm shift and they have to be open to it,” she said.
Being the only woman at the County Council table means Tucker has to be assertive about her convictions. She also has to be intentional about her desire to be heard.
“At the beginning, I kind of felt lonely and like nobody understood me,” she said. “That might have been meeting one or two, but after that I was able to nestle into my own comfort zone, realizing that I had to find comfort in being the only woman at the table. I still had a responsibility to those who elected me and I had to find my own mental level of comfort.”
Despite the challenges and occasional negativity, Hays said there's an aspect to campaigning that warms her heart.
“The people who bring their kids and make it a civics lesson standing on the porch with their daughters to say, 'Look at this woman,'” she said.
As political parties and other groups look to recruit candidates, they are targeting women more than ever. In 2018, many candidates for township positions in Allen County were women, Meehan said, noting many of them are still around and active in party politics.
“By getting them running for a township position, which is smaller, it got them out in their communities and they learned some things they didn't know before and they're still active,” she said. “We tried to specifically target women and we had a large number of them step up and give it a whirl.”
It's also helpful, Meehan said, that she, as a woman, chairs the county Democratic Party.
The Allen County Republican Party has helped elect women to public office , including Keesling, Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards, County Recorder Anita Mather, County Assessor Stacey O'Day and County Commissioner Therese Brown, Party Chair Steve Shine said, describing the county party as a trailblazer.
“We have been and currently are very supportive of women in government and that is more than just lip service because the list of women involved in government who are Republican women is very, very formidable and impressive,” Shine said. “It's bountiful with women in those very high-profile positions. Two of the most powerful positions in county government are filled by women.”
About this project
The makeup of elected governing boards could shift as more and more women campaign for public office and enter the political arena. Today marks the start of a series looking at Women & Politics.
• A look at the challenges women face in deciding to run and serving on public boards, sometimes appointed, even when elected.
• The gender mix is changing in Congress and at other levels as women consider all options of public service.
• Fort Wayne has had a female mayor, but she served just 11 days. A story in the Metro section looks at the local history of women in politics.
• Fundraising success can make a difference in how far candidates go.
• A look at some of the training and development entities, such as The Richard G. Lugar Excellence in Public Service series, that provide women guidance.
• The college arena is where some future lawmakers and political activists get their start.
• Words of wisdom from women who have experience on the political scene.