Representation Matters

Cherelle Parker and Rue Landau
From left, Cherelle Parker and Rue Landau, who were elected as Philadelphia mayor and Philadelphia City Council member at-large, resepctively, (Photo of Landau: Kelly Burkhardt)

Except for a few years living in New Orleans and New York City and with some time spent working in London and Los Angeles, I’ve lived in Philadelphia much of my life. In many respects, Philadelphia is in my DNA — as is politics.

My maternal grandfather, Edwin C. Moore, was a president of the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks that was responsible for saving myriad historic buildings throughout Old City and Society Hill. When I was a child, he and my grandmother were caretakers of the Samuel Powel House, home of the last mayor of Philadelphia under the British Crown and first mayor of Philadelphia under the newly created capital of the colonies. 

Powel’s wife, Elizabeth Willing Powel, was a highly educated woman who was an advisor to George Washington. She gave renowned parties at the Powel House during the drafting of the Constitution, which John Adams referred to as “sinful dinners,” as they included music and dancing in the upstairs ballroom. It was Elizabeth Powel who famously asked Benjamin Franklin of the Constitutional Convention, “Dr. Franklin, what [government] have you given us?” to which Franklin responded, “A republic.” Then added, “if you can keep it.”

It was from my grandfather, who taught me everything about the Powel House and from early childhood, took me on walks throughout Society Hill, teaching me about colonial Philadelphia, the history of abolition rooted there, the places in the city that were points on the Underground Railroad and many other historical references I was never taught in school, that I became invested in this city and its long and complex history. A large part of these informal lessons involved Philadelphia women who changed history, from Elizabeth Willing Powel to the women who founded the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society.

That small child avidly listening to her grandfather and his voluminous knowledge of history never expected to grow up to be an historian herself nor to be part of historic moments in Philadelphia and elsewhere. But those early walks and talks with my grandfather were a template of how women could influence history and create change. They were also lessons in how representation matters.  

In college, I co-founded the first lesbian radio program in the U.S. — Amazon Country on WXPN-FM. Before the internet, Amazon Country reached into the closet and touched so many people unready or unable to come out. Week after week, I got phone calls and letters thanking me for being there and representing queerness out loud. 

In Philadelphia, women have been shut out of the mayoralty for generations. It wasn’t until 1999 that Happy Fernandez resigned from City Council to become the first woman to run for mayor in the city. In 2015, former D.A. Lynn Abraham and executive director of the Redevelopment Authority Terry Gillen ran for mayor. Gillen withdrew and Abraham lost. 

The Republican Party has fielded women candidates for mayor: Melissa Murray Bailey in 2015 and Daphne Goggins in 2019, but with voter registration in Philadelphia favoring Democrats 8 to 1, those races were pro-forma, given the demographics.

In recent years, women around the country have broken through the hard glass ceiling of mayoral elections. Atlanta, Chicago, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco all have had Black women mayors, and in 2020, Boston broke two ceilings by electing the first woman and first person of color, progressive Democrat Michelle Wu.

In 2010, Annise Parker made history in Houston and the country by becoming the first out lesbian mayor of a major city. In 2018, Lori Lightfoot became the first Black woman mayor as well as the first lesbian mayor in Chicago. And in November, Karen Bass became the first woman mayor of Los Angeles and only the second Black mayor in the city’s history.

So when Cherelle Parker was elected in a landslide Tuesday, it was a moment for every woman and girl in this city: finally we have leadership that looks like us and understands us in ways that no man ever has or can. 

I had no idea how long that wait had weighed on me — how much I had wanted a woman mayor and the representation that brings with it until I saw Parker dancing at her party Tuesday night.

After her win, Parker tweeted, “Your votes have spoken, and I am deeply grateful for the trust you’ve placed in me. This victory belongs to every single member of this coalition, every person who believed in me, and our united vision for a safer, cleaner, greener future….Let’s get to work: One Philly, a united city.” 

It felt like a page turned and a new chapter began.

The election of Rue Landau feels almost surreal. There have been so many attempts to get an out LGBTQ+ person on City Council. In her acceptance speech, Landau explained just what her representation of LGBTQ+ people would mean to so many people throughout Philadelphia. She said, “On the campaign trail, I met so many people around the city. Every single pocket of the city, no matter where I gave my stump speech, and in every single place, I came out to them no matter where I was.” 

Landau said, “Oftentimes after the meeting, I would have somebody come up to me in the back of the room, whether it was a grandma who was telling me that their 40-year-old granddaughter just came out of the closet and was in a relationship with a woman, whether it was somebody who was telling me that they had a family member who had just come out as nonbinary or trans, or whether it was a professional in Philadelphia who said, ‘I am still not accepted by my family’ and each time they thanked me and said, ‘Please, you’re doing this for all of us. This is for our entire community.’”

Landau said that getting elected “is really, really a group process,” and she’s right: it took so many people over so many years to make this happen. 

The flip side of these two monumental firsts is all the years we had no representation by someone who looked — and just as crucial, lived — like us. And that’s the thing: there’s so much pain in not being represented because there is so much pain in our voices not being heard, or our voices being suppressed, in who we are being discounted and dismissed.

When my grandfather was schooling me on what women could and did accomplish in the 18th and 19th centuries, he couldn’t have known where those lessons would take me. But his knowledge and his belief in the importance of women to the very foundation of our society and to what was morally right — abolition — and what was wrong — slavery — was fundamental to what he was telling me and what I was learning.

He died decades ago, when I was only 13, but I think he would be pleased by these two wins, even as he wondered why it had taken so long. It was from him I got my first lessons in all that women could do and be — and that representation matters. 

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