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Former Austin Female Mayor Calls First Female City Council Majority 'Historic'

Austin Public Library
Carole Keeton, then Carole McClellan, at a 1976 Austin School Board meeting at UT. Keeton went on to become Austin's first, and only, female mayor.

The new Austin City Council being sworn in tonight is historic in that it is the city's first council where the majority of its members – seven out of eleven – are women. 

It took more than a century for the first woman to make it to council. And even after that, Austin's female population continued to struggle for fair representation.

In 1977, Carole Keeton was the first woman to be elected mayor of Austin. No other woman has held that office since.

"Before this election there had only been 15 women – that's counting me as mayor, 14 council members and me as mayor – 15 women since 1839, and now, we've got seven out of eleven,” said Keeton, who calls this election "historic."

She believes Austin has come a long way from the days when she was campaigning for the first time. She remembers an article published the day before her first election where one of her opponents and some businessmen were quoted as saying "the job was too tough for a woman.”

In retrospect, Keeton realizes that derogatory statement may have worked in her favor.

"And I have to tell you that I had women who, I think, before might not have cared to get out. But they did come out that day and vote. I had couples who would come to me – one would say ‘I voted for you, but she didn't, because she was worried about your kids at home.’ Nobody ever said that about a man candidate – I had four little boys at the time,” Keeton recalled.

Keeton was reelected three times. And her boys – well, they survived. One of them served as spokesperson in the George W. Bush White House.

It's been decades since Keeton was mayor. But in some ways, few things have changed.

Political consultant Peck Young has helped run the campaigns of many political hopefuls, and he said one thing still amazes him: A woman's performance continues to be measured differently than a man's.

“There's more attention on what they wear, there's more attention on how they do their hair. Nobody cares whether a man gets a haircut, unless he lets his hair grow down the middle of his back. That's not true with women,” Young said.

And though there's no way around that type of judgment, Young believes this new council will be judged more on what they can accomplish than on anything else.

"I don't think that people like Delia Garza or Ora Houston were elected because they were female. I think they were elected because clearly they made it known in their areas that they were going to be the most aggressive and effective to represent their areas."

Delia Garza represents South East Austin, an area neglected for decades, and Ora Houston represents Central East Austin, an area that's been gentrified and where long-time residents have been pushed to the outskirts of the city.

Having a majority of female council members is not only revolutionary in the political world, but in the everyday life of city hall. For instance, Garza, one of the youngest council members, has yet to start a family, and she's been in talks with the city's human resources department about the city's maternity leave policies.

“Council members don't earn vacation or sick leave – I forget if it's exempt or non-exempt – but we have it different,” Garza said.

It's a job that requires long nights and odd days, so when it comes to the pay, a council member's work does not earn them vacation time. But, if a council member needs time to recover from giving birth, that is an issue that council members still need to figure out directly with the city. There's no written policy.

Laura Morrison is an outgoing council member who served with two other women: mayor pro tem Sheryl Cole and council member Kathy Tovo.

"I have so loved having Sheryl and Kathy on the council with me. Because although we don't always agree, and sometimes ferociously disagree, we are always able to sort of support each other, you know?” Morrison said. “Our whole little thing about the blankets – I got us all monogrammed blankets because it was so dang cold in the city council chambers – but really to have someone who looks at the world, even on that level, by your side, is very supportive.”

As any Austin politician will tell you, there are no women's issues and no men's issues; everyone will govern based on what's important to Austin. That comment aside, the women are pretty giddy to be serving in a council where, for the first time, they are a majority.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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