The 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, granted women the right to vote and paved the way for women in government.
But not immediately. It took the Women’s Liberation movement in the 1970’s to jump-start women’s participation in politics.
Since then, the number of women in local, state and federal government positions is at an all-time high, and several in Ouachita Parish are key figures in local politics.
West Monroe Mayor Staci Mitchell said her presence in politics evolved from being involved in the community through organizations such as the West Monroe-West Ouachita Chamber of Commerce, West Monroe High School Foundation and Kiwanis Club, to being an elected official for her community.
“An alderman seat opened on the West Monroe Board of Aldermen in 2011, and I went to visit with then-Mayor Dave Norris about being appointed,” Mitchell said. “I was appointed as an alderman, then ran for the seat six months later. Because of my involvement in the WMWO Chamber of Commerce and the community, I was encouraged to run for mayor in 2018.”
Mitchell is currently entering her second term and is the first woman to be elected Mayor of West Monroe.
Gretchen Ezernack currently serves on the Monroe City Council, and is the longest-tenured woman on the council, having been appointed to the District 2 seat in January 2010 after the death of seat holder Ben Katz. She then won the seat in October 2010.
“During that period of time, obviously, I realized it was something I wanted to do because I lived here my entire life,” Ezernack said. “You always want to do something that will be impactful and of service to your community.”
Monroe City Councilmember Juanita Woods said she saw a need for individuals who genuinely cared for the constituents in her district. People in the community needed someone that would be a voice for them and needed someone who could be loyal and dedicated to them without having to answer to other people and other entities, Woods said.
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“I call myself the ‘People’s Voice’,” Woods said. “In being the ‘People’s Voice’, if things aren’t necessarily politically correct and if it’s the right thing to do for the people, then that’s what I am.”
During her journey in the arena of politics, Woods said she has faced challenges due to being a vocal woman on issues in her district.
“I’ve lost a lot of support from people that initially supported me when I ran the first time but at the end of the day, I believe in the people who elected me,” Woods said. “I’m going to always represent the people that elected me.”
State Sen. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, said as an African American woman, she is in the minority two ways in the legislative body. Jackson said that challenges arise when attempting to pass legislation that would provide for equality for minority communities with just minority legislative members.
“You have to lobby your colleagues extra hard sometimes to ensure that it happens,” Jackson said. “I’m thankful that I have colleagues that are not minorities from Northeast Louisiana and over the state that have come together with us on those issues to get it done. There are certain issues in the minority community that we continuously attempt to address and we have not been able to pass so that has been very challenging.”
These days, women in positions of power are no longer the anomaly they once were. The Monroe City Council is currently majority female, with three women serving on the 5-member body. In addition to Ezernack in District 2 and Woods in District 3, Councilmember Kema Dawson holds the District 5 seat and serves as co-chair.
That is a fairly recent phenomenon, Ezernack said.
“When I was first on there, I was the only female, then we had two females and now we’ve got three,” Ezernack said. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to serve their local community and whichever field they would like to. Certainly, I would hope more would become interested in doing something like that, whether it’s local or just being very active in their church or their kids’ school.”
Jackson said she hopes women will continue to run for political office and continue to bring their perspectives to the conversation.
“In running for office, our male colleagues, which so many of them do already, will join us on issues that we have become resident experts on, whether it be Title IX complaints or female issues,” Jackson said. “I’m a pro-life Democrat and that is extremely important to me as a woman that I bring that perspective to the legislature. It’s also equally important that bring the perspective of equal pay for women and what it means to be a single mother and how those systems of government that offer support to families should no longer become handouts and a hand-up, and how to do involve into the next cycle of leaders and how do we help usher that.”
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