DALTON, Ga.—Knowing she would be the first woman to serve on Dalton's City Council in 160 years was one reason Denise Wood decided to run for office four years ago.
"It was kind of a hook," Wood said. "That means for 160 years there were only men. To break that barrier was a challenge."
Four years later, Wood, 56, says the experience has been mostly positive. She said she was immediately accepted by the other council members as part of the team. It has been rewarding to guide the city during difficult economic times and make decisions she believes will help residents, she said.
But as an elected woman in Northwest Georgia, Wood frequently is reminded that few women run for local office, and even fewer are elected.
At an annual prayer breakfast for elected officials in Whitfield County, she noted that she was one of only a handful of women. One or two judges, a court clerk. That's pretty much it.
When she travels to Atlanta on city business or meets with officials from other cities, she often is the only woman in the room.
"There are definitely a lot less [women elected] than where I grew up in Indiana," Wood said, sipping a cup of coffee at Pentz Street Station. Several other tables were filled with morning regulars discussing news, business and politics. They were all men.
"It could be a Southern cultural thing, what's expected of women," Wood said. "I really don't know the reason. Things are a little better than they used to be, but one would still expect more women."
A senior director of environmental services at Mohawk Industries, Wood said she decided to run for office after her husband died suddenly. Her life had changed drastically, and she had more time on her hands. Her three children were grown.
But even after she made the decision and walked out after qualifying at City Hall, Wood said she had a sudden moment of panic. What had she just done?
She grew up with four brothers, works in a field dominated by men and describes herself as "definitely not a Southern belle" and "a tough lady," but said she still feared a nasty campaign.
"I've always been pretty confident, but my biggest fear was that someone would run against me and turn it into a hostile race. I think women view politics as being abrasive and tough," she said.
Wood ended up running unopposed and is unopposed for re-election this year.
Viola Ibarra, who serves on the Dalton-Whitfield County Charter Commission, which is examining the possible merger of the city and county, and several other boards in Dalton, understands the feeling. She has been urged to run for office but has declined so far.
"It's a confidence thing," she said.
Time also is an issue, Wood and Ibarra noted. Wood said she spends at least 15 to 20 hours a week attending meetings with various boards and researching issues she is expected to vote on.
Ibarra works, has a 7-year-old son, is enrolled in a master's degree program and volunteers in the community. She has no idea how she would find time to serve as an elected official.
But both women said they believe women bring valuable diversity to politics. Women should realize that they can be capable politicians and nurturing mothers, Wood said.
"I'm a mom; it brings a slightly different perception to issues," she said.
Wood often urges other women to get involved in politics and hopes she will inspire other women so the City Council will have a little more diversity in the next 160 years.
"It's a personal decision. It's a sacrifice of your time, but if you love your community, it's rewarding," she said. "I hope I'm opening the door for another woman."
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...