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The Lynchburg City Council, with its first Republican majority in decades, gavelled in this week and, as one of its first acts, elected a mayor.
The council’s choice, on a 4-3 vote, was Stephanie Reed.
This is notable for several reasons. First, Reed is a newcomer to the council, but that’s not what gets my attention.
Here’s what does: Reed is Lynchburg’s fourth female mayor in a row, starting with Joan Foster (2016-2018), Treney Tweedy (2018-2020) and MaryJane Dolan (2020-2022).
Is there any other city in Virginia that has had four women in a row as mayor?
Before we answer that, let’s point out something else noteworthy about Lynchburg’s mayoral selection: Lynchburg is the largest city in Virginia with a woman as mayor, and it’s held that distinction for a while now.
Now there’s a catch to that, as there are with many things. Virginia draws a bright distinction between cities and counties, so while Lynchburg is the largest city with a female mayor, it’s not the largest local government with a woman in the presiding chair. Prince William County, Loudoun County, Stafford County, Albemarle County, Hanover County and Montgomery County (in descending order of population) are all bigger than Lynchburg and all have women wielding the gavel as chair of the board of supervisors. So if we’re simply measuring local government, however it’s structured, maybe Lynchburg isn’t that unusual.
Still there’s a certain cachet to the title “mayor” that there isn’t to “chair.” Sorry, chairs. James Cagney starred in “The Mayor of Hell,” not “Chairman of the Board of Supervisors of Hell,” although in some localities I’m sure that the chair would confide that presiding over the board is akin to service in that place down below.
The point remains: Lynchburg has had four women in a row as mayor and some cities haven’t had any.
Roanoke has never had a female mayor.
Norfolk has never had a female mayor.
Some cities haven’t had many.
Danville, one of just two cities in the state with an all-male council, has had one woman as mayor: Ruby Archie, from 1998 to 2000.
Salem has had one: Renee Turk, who was elected by fellow council members in 2020.
Richmond has had two: Eleanor Parker Sheppard from 1962 to 1964 and Geline Williams from 1988 to 1990.
Charlottesville has had four women as mayor, but that’s been over five decades – starting with Nancy O’Brien from 1976 to 1978 to Nikuyah Walker from 2018 to 2022.
Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics studied cities and towns with populations greater than 30,000 in 2021 and found that 25.1% had women as mayors.
Statistica says that four major U.S. cities have had as many as three female mayors – Baltimore, Charlotte, Fort Worth and Sacramento – but none have had more than that. Now, Statisca defines a major city as 500,000 population or greater so by its measure, none of Virginia’s cities are counted, certainly not Lynchburg, population 79,009 in the most recent census.
Still, if you look at all the supposedly progressive cities out there, many have never had a woman as mayor. Not New York. Not Denver. Not a lot of other places. Yet here’s Lynchburg, a conservative-leaning city in the South, that now has elected four. Perhaps we should update our stereotypes, eh? (Granted, Lynchburg’s number gets boosted by the fact that its mayors serve two-year terms rather than four).
When Charlottesville’s council elected Walker as the city’s first Black female mayor in 2018, that became a news item of some consequence. I don’t remember a similar discussion when Lynchburg elected Tweedy as its first Black mayor that same year. Granted, Charlottesville had recently gone through the trauma of a deadly white nationalist rally, so that did give Walker’s election more than the usual significance. But my point is that when Tweedy was mayor of Lynchburg, she was mayor of a bigger city – and got less attention. (Case in point: I knew about Walker being mayor of Charlottesville but had to be reminded that Tweedy had been mayor of Lynchburg.)
All these female mayors in Lynchburg may simply be accidental, the luck of the draw of local politics. They certainly come from across the political spectrum. However, I fancy myself something of a historian – I have written a book about Virginia political history, after all – so I can’t help but point out some historical context. Lynchburg may seem an unlikely spot to some for women making political history but, historically speaking, it’s not. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Lynchburg was a center of the women’s suffrage movement in Virginia.
In 1893, Orra Langhorne of Lynchburg founded the Virginia Suffrage Movement. The wife of a prominent businessman, Langhorne used her social standing to make a national name for herself. She testified before the General Assembly. She testified before Congress. She earned mentions in The New York Times and Chicago Tribune. She was vice president of the Woman’s National Press Association and often spoke to the American Social Science Association, a gathering spot for social reformers of the day. Langhorne was famous, although that early suffrage movement seems to have died when she did – in 1904 at age 63. Southern Workman magazine, for which she often wrote, eulogized her this way: “Her gentle voice and her vigorous pen were at the service of the cause she believed in, whether school improvement, industrial training, temperance, prison reform, woman’s advancement, civil service reform, or universal education.” Today, Langhorne’s name is inscribed on the Virginia Women’s Monument in Richmond.
In time, the center of the suffrage movement in Virginia shifted to Richmond, but another Lynchburg woman earned a place in history anyway. Langhorne’s niece was Elizabeth Otey. Otey earned a doctorate in economics – this at a time when many women didn’t go to college at all – and conducted research for the U.S. Commerce and Labor Department on child labor, attention that wasn’t always welcome at the time. The Library of Virginia says she was “probably” founder of the Lynchburg Equal Suffrage League and was certainly active in suffrage issues statewide. Otey has something in common with Lynchburg’s new mayor: Otey was a Republican, although the political spectrums were somewhat different then.
Otey attended the party’s 1916 state convention, which endorsed women’s suffrage. She joined a march in Washington in 1917 where suffragists carried signs condemning President Woodrow Wilson – a Democrat – for ignoring democracy at home while he claimed to be fighting to make it safe in Europe. “As they prepared to march on the White House, people snatched the banners and broke up the rally,” the Library of Virginia says. “Otey’s support of what some suffragists regarded as unladylike militancy seriously worried some leaders of the Equal Suffrage League after Congress submitted the Nineteenth Amendment to the states in 1919.” Otey was quoted at the time: “We wanted to be disagreeable so that they would take notice.”
When the 19th Amendment finally granted women the right to vote, Otey had more history to make. In 1921, she was the Republican nominee for superintendent of public instruction, an office we elected then. That makes her the first woman nominated for statewide office by a major party in Virginia. She lost, of course. Republicans were not a major factor in Virginia in those days. Otey took about 28% of the vote, typical for a Republican at the time.
Otey didn’t stay a Republican. In time, she became a Socialist and in 1933 was the Socialist Party candidate for U.S. Senate in the special election that saw Harry Byrd Sr. win his first term. She lived until 1974 and her legacy lives on still. Her daughter’s will endowed the Elizabeth Lewis Otey Professorship in East Asian Studies at Washington & Lee University.
I have no idea, of course, what Langhorne and Otey would think of today’s politics but I suspect they’d both be pleased to see who Lynchburg’s mayor is – and who its recent mayors have been.