Richmond’s Women Mayors
With the current widespread Coronavirus upheaval, editorials have begun to note the efficient government responses and low casualty rates in countries run by women. Is it cause or coincidence? What would our local, national and global realities look like right now if women ran things? What would Richmond be like under a woman with executive power? As usual, history is a useful place to turn to explore these questions.
Virginia has never elected a woman governor or sent a woman to the Senate. The city of Richmond, however, has had two women mayors.
The first, Eleanor Parker Sheppard, held the office from 1962 to 1964. As the first woman on city council as well—elected in 1954—she transitioned into the mayoral role with confidence. As the city dealt with desegregation, Sheppard pursued a bold, progressive agenda of public works. She sought to expand healthcare and children’s services while also helping to bulldoze the way for I-95. But public works do not always work for everyone. An advocate of “urban renewal,” Sheppard supported the demolition of the Fulton neighborhood, which permanently displaced many Black Richmonders. Sheppard was popular and not long after her term as mayor expired, she moved on to a decade-long career in the House of Delegates.
Richmond’s second woman mayor served from 1988 to 1990. Geline B. Williams also took office during heightened racial tensions. But her priorities and approach proved to be very different from Sheppard’s. A conservative, Williams had represented the overwhelmingly white First District as a City Council member. Many believed that the recent annexation of Chesterfield (in Williams’ district) was a bald attempt to drown out the voting power of Richmond’s Black residents. Tensions increased when Williams became the first white mayor since 1977. Critics and Black council members argued that political power in a predominantly black city had been handed back to white suburbanites. City Council meetings turned ugly. Amidst all the controversy, Williams served quietly. Her mere victory turned out to be her most controversial action. Critics accused her of being an invisible mayor, while her supporters called her gentle. Her political goals tended toward traffic safety, leaf collection, lowering taxes and maintaining a tight budget. She retired from political life shortly after her term was up.
The political legacies of these two women, as complicated as they are, actually do very little to reveal what executive power wielded by a woman looks like in Richmond. That’s because both Sheppard and Williams served as mayor at a time—between 1948 and 2004—when Richmond adopted a Council-Manager government. In that system, City Council and their appointed City Manager held executive authority and Council also appointed the mayor. That meant that the position of mayor was largely ceremonial. In fact, both women arguably held more power as council members.
It seems that for a variety of reasons, history has not given us the inspiring lesson we had hoped for. But here at the Valentine, we believe it is our role to use the past to inform the present and shape the future. And this fuller, more nuanced history of women serving as Richmond’s Mayor can perhaps help to inform and enliven the next generation of leaders across the city.