In the 1999 West Lafayette municipal election, representation for women seemed to be on the rise. The first female mayor in the city’s history, Sonya Margerum, was re-elected to her sixth and final four-year term. Three of the seven newly elected city councilors were women, marking a shift in representation for the community.
Twenty years later, there are nine city councilors, all of whom are men. Two women who had been fixtures on the council since the 2000s decided not to run for re-election in 2015, and male candidates were chosen to replace them.
Three women are vying to change that reality in the municipal election this November.
Democrat Kathy Parker, a teacher at West Lafayette Elementary School who has lived in the community for nearly two decades, ran to represent District 5 four years ago and was defeated by incumbent Gerry Keen.
“I lost by 35 votes,” Parker said. “There were three women that ran, and we all lost.”
She decided to mount another campaign after increasing her involvement in community groups such as Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and being appointed to the Economic Development Commission by West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis.
She partially attributed the lack of female representation following the 2015 election to a broader trend of women being outnumbered in politics. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, only one quarter of the Indiana state legislature is made up of women. Three of the nine members of the Lafayette city council are women, but all three county commissioners are men.
A mother of three, Parker said she’d certainly experienced societal pressure to remain home and nurture her children instead of prioritizing professional success. In her view, this psychological barrier can sometimes dissuade other women from pursuing political office.
When Margerum called her in 2015 and asked her to run for city council, Parker had never spoken to the former mayor or held any level of political office. Her initial reaction was to say, “What qualifies me to run for anything?”
“Honestly, I only ran because I was asked to run by ... Margerum,” Parker said. “If she hadn’t asked me, it would have never crossed my mind.”
Democrat Shannon Kang, currently a sophomore at Purdue studying political science, began considering a city council campaign last year after Purdue Student Government Executive Director of Sustainability Madeline Moisio forwarded an email from a councilor recruiting student candidates. Kang said the councilor’s confidence in her affirmed that the prior experience she’d gained through high school and the PSG sustainability committee was enough to bolster a legitimate attempt to represent the city’s third district.
Kang emphasized that she was unaware of the fact that women are underrepresented in politics until she took a course about women in politics this semester.
“Deciding to run was never because I thought there was a lack of women running,” Kang said. “Because I know that’s the case now, I want to encourage younger girls to run. People need to be aware of the issue and understand how much of an impact it has.”
Research from CAWP has found women candidates are more likely to require encouragement before making the decision to run for political office. According to a study conducted by the organization, “potential female candidates may be less likely than potential male candidates to receive such encouragement.”
Heather Maddox, chairwoman of the Tippecanoe County Democratic Party’s central committee, detailed how she meets potential candidates but does not actively recruit them to run.
“When you have an established group of incumbents, you rely on them to identify people and send them in to talk about what campaigning consists of and what needs to be done,” Maddox said. She also mentioned that following the 2015 election, she didn’t expect that the council would be entirely comprised of men.
“Obviously, I’d love to see some women on the council, and I know there have been in the past,” Maddox said. “I guess you’d have to talk to voters, because if you were talking to me about how we’re not running any women, I’d have a different answer. We are.”
During her conversations with voters, District 1 Republican candidate Sydney Rivera has emphasized how there are zero women serving on the city council. She said that people have been extremely surprised to learn this, probably because they expect a college town like Lafayette to be more diverse.
“I don’t think this is a town that has any sort of anti-female leadership sentiment, so I was surprised and thought it was a place that I could make a difference,” Rivera said.
As a Purdue alumna, Rivera said she understands the difficulty of engaging students in the institutions that govern the community. Most students spend four years in West Lafayette before departing, so low voter participation has historically plagued the area’s political process. In the 2015 general municipal election, less than 20% of registered voters cast their votes at the ballots.
Rivera said she was initially recruited by current District 3 councilor Jon Jones and soon thereafter spoke with former State Rep. Sally Siegrist. Rivera said while an “unspoken woman-to-woman encouragement” was present during the conversation, it didn’t completely define it.
“I wasn’t really worried about being a female candidate; I was more excited about it,” Rivera said. “So, it wasn’t like I needed specific encouragement on, ‘You’re a woman, so you’re going to have these challenges.’”
The Tippecanoe County GOP’s central committee did not respond to requests for elaboration on the organization’s specific recruiting processes.
The lack of women councilors has not been lost on current elected officials within the city’s government. Three-term at-large city councilor Gerald Thomas publicly addressed the issue at a meeting in the spring, calling the phenomenon an “absolute disgrace.”
“I said, ‘There’s something missing here, there’s a voice missing here,’” Thomas said in an interview. “’There’s no female representation, and this doesn’t look like the city that I represent.’”
Thomas said he thinks women are discriminated against at a societal level and that city politics are not immune to that trend. He was adamant about society’s need to embrace the fresh perspectives and differing opinions touted by women for our institutions to improve.
“Women bring a different thought process to an issue. They don’t think like men do — thank God they don’t,” Thomas said.
Sana Booker is one of two elected women currently holding office within West Lafayette city government. She was elected to her first term as city clerk in 2015 after being convinced to run by councilor Anne Hunt, one of two women who decided to end her term during that same period. Booker said that voters likely weren’t consciously worried about the prospect that the council could be devoid of women leading up to the previous election.
“It wasn’t as visible as some other issues, but it became visible very quickly,” Booker said. Referring to herself presiding over city council meetings, she said the situation became, “You walk into a room and you look and go, ‘Okay, all guys and her. There she is.’”
Booker made note of the support she’s received from Dennis to engage women more in government. The mayor has appointed women to many of the non-elected positions throughout the city. Booker said he advocated for her abilities before she won even though she was a member of the opposing Democratic party.
“We have a council of good men who have worked well for this city. But we could have a great council if we put a couple of women on there,” Booker said.
Booker said she has a firm belief that women’s tendency to speak their passions aloud and offer a new viewpoint about problems in the area would greatly benefit the council. In her experience, she’s observed women offer valuable information about ways to improve family life, public safety and children’s education.
“Nothing is made better without a woman a part of it; it just isn’t,” Booker said. “West Lafayette is a community of smart, capable people who know that it is the right thing to have women be a part of a leadership team.”
Tangible issues important to all the three women candidates include domestic violence, sexual assault on campus and women’s health care. Rivera in particular is studying to become an obstetrician-gynecologist at the Indiana University School of Medicine and plans to use her knowledge of women’s health care to implement policies that improve the situation for mothers in West Lafayette.
Booker’s message to women since she assumed office has been straightforward: become involved and make an effort to understand the operations of city government.
“Pay attention to those people who are engaged in making where you live better. I speak that to young women any opportunity I have,” Booker said. “I tell them, ‘This is your house. You get to say how it’s run, and you have a voice.’”