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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, October 13, 2019 1:00 am

Women elected to council still rarity

Just 8 have ever served on city's legislative body

DAVE GONG | The Journal Gazette

The name Catherine Dinklage may not spark the memories of Fort Wayne residents, but she made history nearly 100 years ago.

It was November 1921. As William J. Hosey celebrated a third non-consecutive term as the city's mayor, a short article on the front page of the Nov. 9, 1921, edition of The Journal Gazette detailed a massive win for Fort Wayne's Democratic Party. Near the end of the article, almost as a brief aside, the writer mentions Dinklage's election to the City Council. 

“To Mrs. Catherine Dinklage goes the honor of being the first woman ever elected to office in the city of Fort Wayne,” the article said. “There have been a number of women officeholders before, but all have held appointive positions.” 

Women in elected office remain a minority in Fort Wayne. Including Dinklage, just eight women have served on the City Council. The last two councilwomen completed terms in 2011. 

“There were no women on council when I was city controller,” said former Mayor Cosette Simon, who managed city finances from 1984 to 1988. “It was a little like doing battle every week. I had to prep, understand the issues inside and out and also be prepared for the jabs and slights sent your way. The slings and arrows.”

Dinklage won her race with 13,841 total votes in a race where 27,860 ballots were cast. 

According to the Indiana Commission for Women, Dinklage was the first woman elected to public office in the state. However, there is some information that suggests a woman named Mary E. Nicholson was elected to the Indianapolis Board of School Commissioners in 1909. An article from The Indianapolis Star, published in September that year, confirms that Mary Nicholson was a candidate for the local school board.  

Other women have been elected to public office in Fort Wayne since Dinklage won her race in 1921. Women elected to the City Council were:

• Celia Fay: 1964-72 (Republican, at large).

• Vivian Schmidt: 1972-83 (Democrat, at large).

• Janet Bradbury: 1984-91 (Democrat, at large).

• Rebecca Ravine: 1992-2003 (Republican,at large).

• Dede Hall: 1996-99 (Republican, District 5).

• Liz Brown: 2008-11 (Republican, at-large).

• Karen Goldner: 2008-11 (Democrat, District 2).

According to a Nov. 11, 2008 obituary in The Journal Gazette, Fay was the first woman elected to the City Council in 40 years, indicating that no women had been elected to council after Dinklage left office. 

Former City Clerk Sandy Kennedy became the first woman to hold the office after she was elected in 1983. 

The only woman to serve as mayor of Fort Wayne was Simon. She was appointed after former Mayor Winfield Moses resigned when he pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor campaign finance violations in 1985. Simon, who was previously the city controller, served as mayor from July 8 to 19, the shortest tenure of any Fort Wayne mayor. Moses returned to office after a Democratic Party caucus reelected him and served until 1988.

“I hope that changes soon,” Simon said. “It would be great to have a woman mayor for more than 11 days.” 

Public service to the city of Fort Wayne was a launching pad for Simon's career, as both a government insider and a liaison for the private sector. After leaving the city, she worked for former Gov. Evan Bayh, before moving to Lincoln Re, the reinsurance division of Lincoln National Corp. in Fort Wayne. Simon was later hired as vice president for government and industry relations at insurance giant Swiss Re, heading the company's Washington, D.C., office She retired from the company in 2014. 

There's one Fort Wayne woman Simon calls one of her great heroes: former Councilwoman Schmidt, who served on the council from 1972 to 1983. Simon said she doesn't think she would have entered public service if it weren't for Schmidt.

“I was enthralled with her. I thought she was the most wonderful person, and she really was my role model,” Simon said. “She was both an excellent city council woman, as well as excellent in politics.”

Ninety-seven years after Dinklage became an at-large councilwoman, there are no women serving on the City Council.

But there are women in other elected positions throughout the county. They include Fort Wayne City Clerk Lana Keesling; Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards; county Recorder Anita Mather; county Assessor Stacey O'Day; county Commissioner Therese Brown; and county Councilwoman Sharon Tucker.

There are also women serving in other elected roles in Allen County, including nine township trustees, 12 town council or town board members, and various elected officeholders in Huntertown and Zanesville, as well as 11 members of the four area public school boards. There are also five women serving as judges in Allen Superior Court.

Allen County is better at electing women than it has been in the past, said Rachel Tobin-Smith, one of the founders of AVOW: Advancing the Voices of Women. Tobin-Smith said she has been involved in politics in one form or another for much of her life. She has volunteered on multiple political campaigns and served on the board of the Women's Bureau. Tobin-Smith is also the former CEO of SCAN.

AVOW's mission is to encourage women from all political parties to seek public office and to help prepare them to do so. 

“It's very different now than it was when I was helping those women 10 years ago and 20 years ago,” Tobin-Smith said. “Now, I am seeing that there's a recognition that women need to be represented. Before, it was a woman who is running. Now, it's we need to make sure we have representation.”

But there's still a way to go, she said. 

Tobin-Smith said more and more women are reaching out, often across party lines, to offer help and support to women running for office.

“That doesn't mean that Republican women don't want Republicans in and the Democrats don't want Democrats in, but it means that we recognize that there is this gap of having adequate representation,” she said. “Fifty-one percent of the state is women and we're in the 20s for representation.”

Running for election is akin to taking on a part-time job, Tobin-Smith said. Women who run for office need to be able to balance jobs and obligations at home.

“It's tough and I don't know how that compares to men,” she said. “I don't know that it's any easier for men who are doing it.”

What's important right now, Tobin-Smith said, is getting women into official positions through caucuses or elections. It's easier, she said, to run as an incumbent. It's a struggle for women who have family and business obligations to handle a campaign, Tobin-Smith said, meaning anyone who runs needs help.

“I think that there's a role for women who want to be that behind-the-scenes person and the strategist that no one thinks about,” she said. “It could be a huge help because it's capacity-building. Since (campaigning) is almost a 20-hour-a-week job, if someone is able to pick up some of the other stuff that needs to be done, it makes it more doable.”

dgong@jg.net