Forty-two years ago City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke was one of just three women serving in Baltimore’s male dominated city council. It was 1975 and women in the workforce were still somewhat novel. In politics, even more so.
Clarke, Barbara Mikulski and Victorine Adams were the only three elected female officials in city council meetings.
Her male colleagues weren’t even sure what to call her.
“They knew it couldn’t be Councilman Clarke. It couldn’t be councilgirl, although that’s what Mimi di Pietro always did. They didn’t know what to say,” she said.
Clarke and her female colleagues insisted their male counterparts call them by their rightfully earned titles.
She recalls telling them, "It’s Councilwoman Clarke, Councilwoman Mikulksi, Councilwoman Adams.” It took some persistence but their titles eventually stuck.
For the former teacher and mother of four, Women's and children’s issues as well as worker’s rights have always been at the top of her agenda. Clarke says she will continue to push for a $15 minimum wage for Baltimore workers, despite a recent veto by Mayor Catherine Pugh. On her Facebook Page she vowed, “This is not the end,” referencing the March 24 setback of her sponsored legislation.
From 1975-83, she represented the old 2nd district, during which time she and Councilman Kweisi Mfume co-sponsored the city’s first charter amendment to reduce class size in the Baltimore City Public Schools.
Then in 1987, after a long fought campaign, Clarke became the first woman in Baltimore elected city council president. She held the position until 1995, but the role did not come without some gender–based hurdles.
“It was a hard campaign, but I won and so I was elected and when I came into office the council, they changed the rules of the city council president," Clarke said.
The council effectively undercut her power by revoking the president’s ability to handpick committee chairs. According to Clarke, the men in the council began appointing themselves. She felt like the rug had been pulled out from under her.
She was reminded of the words of her friend and mentor Sen. Barbara Mikulski. “She said, ‘Mary Pat, did you ever notice that when women ascend to certain jobs, that job becomes diminished, or they try?'”
It took four years, but Clarke finally called for a vote to change the rule back.
“I wanted what every single male had always had as president of city council,” Clarke said.
While the grandmother of nine is optimistic about the future of gender equality, she says young women should recognize the struggle isn’t over and there are still hills to climb.
“One thing is a lot of young women coming up think is that everything’s been done and that it’s equal and that we’re on equal footing now. We’re not. They weren’t around for the struggle and to see how far women have come and we’ve brought ourselves,” she said.
Clarke is encouraged by the recent Women’s March in Washington, D.C. that proved to be a national and worldwide phenomenon promoting women's rights.
“I think it moved the country and maybe the world into hope,” she said. “It was joyful because we know that in the long run we can overcome.”
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke currently represents the 14th district, a north central district of 46,000 residents.