The Estrogen Empire: Mayor Freeman-Wilson on Women in Politics


Karen Freeman-Wilson, City of Gary

Karen Freeman-Wilson, City of Gary

Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson was elected in 2011 and continues to serve as the first female mayor of Gary, Indiana. She has a distinguished career in public service and has demonstrated her commitment in her roles as Indiana Attorney General, Gary City Judge, CEO of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, and Executive Director of the National Drug Court Institute based in Washington, DC. Her capabilities have not gone unnoticed by national party leaders, and in 2000, she was named as one of the top 100 to watch by the National Democratic Leadership Council.

In 2014 we still see underrepresentation of women in public office (women hold 18.5 percent of the seats in the 113th US Congress, 22.6 percent of the statewide elective executive offices, and among the 100 largest cities in the US, just 13 have female mayors). You currently serve as the first female mayor of Gary and have an active voice in dialogues such as Politico’s “What Works” series and the Big Ideas for Cities conference in Chicago. So what has worked for you?

Well I think that women lead differently. And we need to recognize that that’s not good or bad, it’s just different. For the needs of municipal government, I think it does make you more effective because there is a lot of multitasking. One minute it’s potholes, the next it’s economic development, the next minute you’re at a school. And so to the extent that women tend to multitask, to be consensus builders, and to look for win-win situations, that lends itself to leadership in municipal government.

Now you talk about the void. It is really that politics is not seen to welcome women because politics sends a message to people that you have to have a tough exterior to succeed. Now there’s no doubt about it; this is not for the faint of heart. But it doesn’t mean that you have to be tough. It means that you have to be focused. You have to know what’s important, what’s not. You can’t take everything to heart. And I think that women are suited for it, but you really do have to determine if you’re up for it. If you’re thin-skinned you can’t do this.

Some studies suggest that underrepresentation of women in public office may be due to a gender gap in political ambition—that women, for example, may tend to underrate their qualifications, overestimate the competition, and not discuss the idea of running for office as much as men. Why did you decide to run and what do you think is the best way to close any potential political ambition gap for future generations?

Maybe my ego is a little bigger, but I ran because I really thought that because I had a variety of experiences and we had a lot of challenges in Gary, that there were things that I could do mainly by bringing a team together to address those challenges.

And to your second question, it is incumbent upon those of us women who are in the political arena to really recruit other women. To say to them, “You do have what it takes. You have the talent, you have the intellect, you have the ability to raise money,” and to also say that it is not as difficult as it seems. Yes there are some challenging days but by and large you can do this.

You have mentioned that it was your failures that got you where you are today. What were some of your most significant failures, and how did they impact you?

Probably the most significant failure is the fact that I’ve lost more elections than I won. I ran for City Council back in the 80s and lost. I ran for Attorney General in 2000 and lost. I ran twice for Mayor and lost. And each of those unsuccessful elections ultimately helped me learn something. When you lose, you find out how much of that is just the luck of the draw. But failure ultimately allowed me to prepare to be a successful mayor.

You have previously highlighted the importance of compassion in leadership. What do you think compassionate leadership looks like? And how does that fit with this idea we tend to have that you need to be really tough to be in the political arena?

I think that suddenly you have to be definitive as a leader, but at the same time people have to understand that you care about the least thing that they care about. Everything that matters, every issue that matters to citizens, even if they are blowing it out of proportion, has to rise to the level of importance where it’s an important enough issue for me to talk to them and to help them resolve it. And that’s where compassion comes in. Even if you don’t have the same experiences, whether it’s the loss of a loved one, or a burglary in your home, or the loss of a job–even if it’s not your issue, you have to understand it from their perspective. So compassion comes from empathy, and you have to be empathetic towards the people that you serve.

I wonder if you, as Mayor, could share your thoughts on an issue that has received a great deal of attention this month. What are your thoughts on the administration’s focus on the gender income gap (the Equal Pay Day on April 8th) and the Paycheck Fairness Act that has just been blocked in the Senate? Do you think such legislation could have any potential impact on your economic agenda for the residents of your city?

It’s essential that we have the Equal Pay Act and some legislation that addresses the disparity in incomes between men and women. It directly impacts cities like ours. We have a high percentage of female head of households, and by addressing the income disparity; you immediately raise the quality of life of the citizens of our community and in so doing, raise the level of economic achievement throughout the city of Gary.

In closing, what was the best piece of career advice you ever received, and what would you say to anyone interested in having an influence in the sphere of politics and policy?

The best piece of career advice that I got was don’t take yourself too seriously. And I think that’s important in life. Sometimes if people have a title, they tend to identify with that title in a way that they really do take themselves too seriously. I try not to do that. The way that I say it is, don’t believe the hype.

The advice I would give is that there’s humor in every situation. And in an area where you are faced with grave issues and tremendous challenges, you have to be able to find that humor because that really is what allows you to continue not jaded.


Feature Photo: cc/(Dell Inc.)'
Natalya Wallin
Natalya Wallin is an Executive Editor for the Chicago Policy Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. She is interested in foreign policy, inclusive growth, human rights, and women's issues.

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