Little Old Ladies in Tennis Shoes: My Experiences as a Woman in Local Government

Originally from Chicagoland, guest author Chelsea Bakaitis worked for the WomanStats Project from 2012-2014 while earning a Bachelor of Science in Geography and a minor in Women’s Studies from Brigham Young University. After leaving Utah she made Gainesville, Florida her home along with her husband, dog, two cats, and many house plants. Currently she is involved with urban revitalization, and working for a local community reinvestment agency.

My first job out of college was as a regional planner in central Utah for an association made up of several rural counties and their towns. I never considered my career would bring me to such a remote area, but I was captivated by the mountains and so I was sold. During these two years I had some unique interactions which have given me insight into women and government. In this post I’m going to share five of my many impactful experiences.

#1: A seat at the table

The furthest town of the region was at the Utah-Nevada border in the West Desert. The isolated town is populated primarily by members of a religious group founded in the 1950s. Curious about what this place was like, I started asking around. A county commissioner told me that he had traveled the three hour trip there several years back to build a good repertoire with its leaders.  After their meeting the Mayor invited him to a communal dinner, but the odd thing about the dinner was that the women served the men’s food in silence and neither ate nor sat down at the table.

Although I had never visited this town myself, I often thought about it because it felt bizarre to think that a place with such an unusual custom existed just on the other side of the mountain. I amused myself with wondering: if I did ever have the chance to visit, would I be invited to sit, talk and eat dinner at the table? I imagined the dilemma that the town leaders would face if I showed up—where would I sit? This practice became a metaphor to me as I observed women in all capacities in relation to American local government. Can women be allowed any seat at every table?

#2: Women behind the scenes

In the small towns of rural Utah, although a woman rarely had the title of mayor or council member, she could still run the town. Sometimes she was a volunteer, a “little old lady in tennis shoes”, but usually she was employed as the town clerk.  There seemed to be a preference among these ladies to work behind the scenes rather than run for public office.

This isn’t just a trend in rural America—a survey of the top 100 largest U.S. cities found that in 2019 only 27 had a woman mayor.  There is a bit more parity for city councils but these legislative bodies still lack equitable representation with the average percentage of women in councils at a low range of 32% (depending on the type of council, for more information see source).*

From my own observations, the majority of local government employees tend to be women—but most administrative and director positions seem to be held by men. Based on this data and observations, I decided in the early days of my career that I needed to examine if the best seat really was at the table. In other words: perhaps, is it better to manage a town as a volunteer, clerk, or employee rather than deal with being in a leadership or elected position?

I remember once a clerk confided in me, near to tears, that the Mayor was losing his mind to dementia or some other illness (I don’t remember) and his behavior at public meetings was becoming more erratic. Despite this, he was just elected for another term as mayor; his condition wasn’t widely known despite the municipality’s tiny size. The clerk, as the town’s only full time employee, smoothly ran its affairs, applied for grants, and managed needed capital improvements, but was still powerless to bring her ideas to fruition. She had an intimate knowledge of the area but the Mayor did not listen to her advice, and the town council protected him and allowed him to keep his position even as he became more and more incapacitated.

This is a classic example of the failings of the “good old boy network” of American politics. This network describes political, social and business connections only privy to certain men, usually excluding women and people with minority status. It’s what prohibits women from feeling confident to run for public office with the knowledge that they would be supported.

#3: Privilege, and good old boys networks

A couple of times a year as a regional planner I would visit a certain small town to discuss state and federal reporting requirements and grants. Although incorporated, the town was almost entirely made up of members of a religious sect that practiced polygamy. Rumor had it that the elected officials of this particular town were appointed by the church’s patriarch/religious leader. In effect, the residents of the town voted for the mayor and council members unanimously with no contenders.

This is an example of an institutionalized “good old boy network.”  In a lot of cities these networks are just as ubiquitous and but not as official. Still it’s important to examine these extreme examples so you can recognize a “good old boys network” when it is present but not as obvious.

 Whenever we visited this town we were welcomed by the clerk and she would usher us into a conference room to discuss matters with the Mayor. He was a man with a prominent family name in the community and most likely was appointed by the “network” due to his status.

My director would visit the town along with me.  It’s important to note here that he is Native American and I am White. In our conversations, it was not lost on me that the Mayor looked at me and directed all questions my way, despite the fact that my superior was sitting next to me. Maleness and authority alone will not always allow a person a seat in a “good old boy network”, especially if that person is not white. Because of this, even as a young inexperienced woman, I was able to enter a network my Native American boss was not. Privilege is a continuum depending who you are and what network you are entering. This lesson has humbled me and now I try to be attuned to what various people may be experiencing in any given “network”.

#4: Mentorship among women in local government

I noticed the “good old boy network”—whether institutional or not—throughout the local governments of rural Utah, but there was one government space I did not see this trend and that was the tribal government adjacent to our area. The elected leadership for this jurisdiction was primarily women. I always sought these ladies out to talk with at conferences because I felt lonely as one of the few women in my profession from the rural parts of the state. It’s important to build social connections and find mentors.

#5: Little old ladies in tennis shoes

In city government lingo there is an acronym used to describe a type of woman who regularly attends and comments at public meetings. It’s “LOLITS”, which stands for “Little Old Lady in Tennis Shoes”. This woman is not a leader, but busies herself with trying to influence elected officials through volunteering or the public forum. She is often either valued for her free labor or completely ignored for her opinions. This is not a true seat at the table. From what I have witnessed, attending public meetings and volunteering is not enough to influence policy. Women are half the population and need equitable leadership representation in order to ensure that policy is representative of all citizens.

American government has a ways to go, but from what I have noticed over the past six years it is becoming more acceptable to be a woman and a local leader. Even since I started my career just seven years ago, I’ve observed that there is a huge philosophical push amongst local governments to promote equity from within—and for political, social, and business networks to become inclusive. To readers: please continue to grow your own networks, and allow them to be open to people with different backgrounds and genders than your own. It’s important that we develop a political system in the local government that allows everyone to be seated and talking at the table.

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