In its last mayoral election, the city of Boston made history. Residents elected Michelle Wu, the first millennial, first Asian, and first woman, as mayor. This 36-year-old woman of Taiwanese ancestry broke a significant glass ceiling. Wu won on a platform promising a “Green New Deal” to combat climate change, make public transportation free, and address the soaring cost of housing in Boston, one of the most expensive places to live in the country. Moreover, Wu’s election marked a significant change to the Boston political landscape because her win did not rely on traditional white working-class areas.
In recognition of Women’s History Month, it is fitting to celebrate the continuing progress of women as elected mayoral officials. In September 2019, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, of the 1,366 mayors of US cities with populations over 30,000, 300, or 22 percent, were women. The number rose in 2021, with 407 of the 1,621 cities with populations over 30,000, or 25.1 percent, being led by women mayors.
Yet, while women continue to make strides as elected officials, they are also being cut by the shards of the ceilings they break, suffering the brunt of abuses when their policies clash with constituents. In fact, female mayors were more than twice as likely as males to experience psychological abuse and almost three times as likely to experience physical violence. A 2019 study published in the journal “State and Local Government Review” documented that 4.55 percent of women faced minor physical violence versus 1.87 percent of men; 16.4 percent of women reported sexualized violence or abuse versus 1.9 percent of males; 16.7 percent of women faced threats of death, rape, beating, or abduction versus just under 12 percent of men, and 18.2 percent of women experienced violence against property compared to 8.8 percent of men.[i]
In Boston, for example, Mayor Wu has been subjected to daily protests outside her home in response to vaccine and masking mandates. The attacks against her have been racist, sexist, and personally harmful. Wu tweeted of protesters chanting, “Happy Birthday, Hitler,” and using a megaphone to shout that her two young children would grow up without a mother because she would be in prison. Women are attacked for their looks, as was Madison, Wisconsin’s, mayor, Satya Rhodes-Conway, who reflected on being called fat, sick, worthless, gutless, and loser. Women also must contend with sexualized threats. Mayor Heidi Harmon, of San Luis Obispo, California, said that she was particularly troubled by an Instagram post that said she “deserved to be sexually assaulted” after a man with a sexual fixation attempted to force his way into the mayor’s office.
Why do these things continue to happen to women? When women are successful in male gendered type domains, their success is deemed a violation of gender-stereotypic prescriptions, which produces negative reactions to them. When women successfully break the glass ceilings of these new domains, they are literally cut by the personal attacks leveled to defame, discourage, and motivate withdrawal from public service. Even Mayor Wu says she tries not to take the protests personally but acknowledges that the protests do take a toll on her, her family, and her neighbors.[i]
I understand how Mayor Wu feels, having experienced hurtful and sometimes hateful comments made about me in leadership. It is demoralizing to give yourself in service, only to be abused by those whom you are trying to serve. Our social media culture has only made such abuse more common, as abusers hide behind the anonymity of tweets or posts, demonstrating an ability to spew vitriol in a finite number of characters. Nevertheless, I want to encourage women to continue to be pioneers and trailblazers. Keep breaking glass ceilings, but also put on some reinforcements to prevent being cut by the shards. Your faith in God is a reinforcement. God’s Word promises that no weapon fashioned against you shall prosper, and you shall refute every tongue that rises against you in judgment (Isaiah 54:17). And while you are anchored by God, put on the reinforcements of family and friends who love you, for a threefold cord is not quickly broken (Ecclesiastes 4:12). Finally, as you make strides, make space for the women who will follow you. As we read in Isaiah 41:6, “Each one helps the other, saying to one another, “Take courage!” (NRSV). That is the inspiration for us all during Women’s History Month and always.
Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson is dean of the business school of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a premiere science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)–based institution that develops adaptive leaders who create sustainable solutions, deliver globally responsible impact, and conduct transformative research at the intersection of business, technology, and people. Her book Meant for Good: Fundamentals in Womanist Leadership, is available through Judson Press.
[i] S. Thomas, R. Herrick, L. D. Franklin, M. L. Godwin, E. Gnabasik, J. R. Schroedel, “Not for the Faint of Heart: Assessing Physical Violence and Psychological Abuse against U.S. Mayors,” “State and Local Government Review 2019” 51, no. 1:57–67. doi:10.1177/0160323X19858133.
[ii] Emma Platoff, “Officials of Color Condemn Attacks on Wu: Pressley, Others Call Out Racist, Sexist Rhetoric,” “Boston Globe,” February 2, 2022, B.3.
Photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash