Women may make up half of the county’s population but they only account for 16 percent of its decision-makers.
Three female officials in Hanover County are the only women to serve on their respective political body. But, putting their gender aside, Ashland Mayor Faye Prichard, Chickahominy Supervisor Angela Kelly-Wiecek and South Anna School Board Member Sue Dibble said it comes down to doing the job right.
“Once you’re in office, your job is to take care of everybody,” Prichard said.
When she was first elected about 12 years ago, Prichard said there weren’t many women in office. Prichard said she was referred to as “that little lady from Ashland” or often was patted on the head at meetings.
Prichard said she never had to prove herself as a woman to the citizens of Ashland, but she did have to prove she was right for the job. Her inner teacher gives her an advantage on that front because she is constantly brushing up on documents and understanding the issues.
“I get my respect because I do my job,” Prichard said.
Kelly-Wiecek is the only woman on the Board of Supervisors. In fact, she is the first Republican woman on the board and only the third female to join the supervisors.
But Kelly-Wiecek said working with all males is not unusual for her, because she has always worked with men in private industry and manufacturing.
She said people will always judge you regardless of gender or nationality.
As a female politician, Kelly-Wiecek said she tries to encourage young women to get involved in politics whenever she gets the chance. Kelly-Wiecek speaks to groups and clubs such as Girl Scout troops to spread encouragement to young girls.
“I don’t want the next generation of women to think that politics is a male dominated-industry,” Kelly-Wiecek said. “I don’t want them to have any reservations about getting involved.”
One positive side effect that she’s noticed since serving on the board, is her son has had the opportunity to learn more about local government. Kelly-Wiecek will often have her son with her at board meetings or take him to speeches. She recalled one time when her son attended a political speech, and at the time she didn’t think he was paying attention. The next day, she said he wrote about the speech for an essay and hit all the main points the speaker gave.
“You will give your children experiences that will enrich them,” Kelly-Wiecek said.
She added that’s something women, who often worry about how holding office will affect family life, often don’t consider when deciding whether to run or not.
Dibble joins Prichard and Kelly-Wiecek as the only female on her board.
But like Kelly-Wiecek, Dibble said her job in the primarily male-dominated construction industry prepared her to work alongside the six males on the school board.
As a result, she doesn’t feel she needs to prove herself as a woman. Dibble also receives a lot of support from her husband. She said that many women aren’t encouraged to take political roles.
Dibble said being empathetic and able to communicate to people are positive things she brings to the school board.
“It’s a good perspective to have on the board because I’m interested in how our decisions will impact people,” Dibble said.
Opening the door
Each woman emphasized the importance of more female participation in local and state government. But it’s possible they would not be where they are today if it were not for Nina Peace who was elected to office in 1975.
Peace was the very first woman to be elected to office in Hanover and the first woman to serve on the Board of Supervisors.
“She opened the door for other women,” said Del. Chris Peace, her only son.
He added that if his mother hadn’t stepped forward into politics or law, other female Hanoverians may have had a tougher time.
Another woman did not serve on the board until 32 years after his mother was elected and Del. Peace said representation of women in local politics is still a work in progress.
“I believe there’s still a great need for participation,” he said.
Peace’s main reason for seeking office was to serve the public. Del. Peace said she had a passion for doing just that and she wanted to be the voice for those who did not have one.
“She didn’t regard the differences in gender,” he said.
Her personality was an advantage. Her son described her as an “and” person, because she was not only a professional but also a parent and an active community member.
“She embodies the ideal of a woman,” he said.
When she ran, Peace competed for the position against two men. Del. Peace said his mother never feared failure and her main goal was “challenging the established way of thinking.” Once elected, she used her law background to question county officials and other board members.
Peace graduated from Goucher College, when it was an all-female school, and interned in the Maryland General Assembly. After attending Georgetown University Law School, she finished up law school at the University of Richmond.
She was elected in 1975 and was responsible for helping start the group “Citizens for Sensible Growth,” which supported a reasonable amount of growth in the county.
During her term, the county established the Suburban Service Area in Hanover, which is connected to infrastructure and enabled growth.
“I think the county really came of age during her term,” Del. Peace said.
The Board helped define growth and establish how it should be developed and where in the county it should be located. They also enhanced public safety and built many of the existing schools while still preserving Hanover’s rural character, Del. Peace said.
As a woman originally from Washington D.C. living in a rural area, Peace “kinda [shook] things up.”
But that didn’t stop her.
“She couldn’t be beat,” he said.
Even Peace’s own mother tried to get her to move back to Washington D.C. because she did not think she would be as successful as a woman in Hanover.
“She saw this as a mission — to help a lot of people and change lives as opposed to if she were a big fish in a big pond,” Del. Peace said.
After serving as a Hanover supervisor for four terms. Doug Wilder became governor and Peace received the opportunity to serve on the bench and use her law expertise from 1990 to 1996. Her term as judge ended when she faced a Republican legislature and was not reappointed. In the last eight years, she focused more on herself and her son.
Because she led an active life while being a single mom, local government surrounded Peace’s son at an early age.
He went to a lot of board meetings and would often do his homework in the conference rooms.
At that time, there were a lot of Republican supervisors who “would gavel her down.”
But that did not discourage her. Del. Peace said his mother often spoke over people and made sure her voice was heard.
When he started law school, Del. Peace discovered that despite all of his mother’s involvement in local law and government, that he was more interested in serving at the state level. He also knew he wanted to serve the public.
“That’s what our family is,” he said.
It is evident his Peace left her footprint in Hanover.
“I still get so many people that say ‘If it weren’t for her, you know, my son would have done this or my daughter would have done that or I wouldn’t have been able to do this,’” he said.
Call for increased representation
Prichard said that although there are still not as many women as there are men in the General Assembly, she feels some headway has been made in the representation of women in Virginia politics.
“I don’t think it’s harder for women to do the job,” Prichard said.
She added, “Women play bigger and bigger roles all the time.”
Dibble said having more women in state government would be a good thing.
“I think the more diversity we have, the better decisions we will come up with,” she said.
Kelly-Wiecek agreed and said she would like the make-up of the state government to change, but she doesn’t think it boils down to just gender.
“I wish that climate were different,” she said. “I think it goes back to encouraging good people to run.”
Toni Radler, long-time Ashland citizen who recently ran for the 55th District delegate seat, said women are not well represented at the Capitol. She believes it’s “still a boy’s club.”
As far as the representation of women in Hanover County, Radler said numbers are still low, noting there’s a huge need for women to get involved at the local level. Radler did point out female community activists such as Debbie Wetlaufer, who organized the movement against the Mechanicsville theater proposal, and Kim Singhas in Elmont, who Radler hopes will eventually run for office.
Radler said there are a number of advantages women have – they are great multi-taskers and can network and cooperate well with others.
“Boy, that’s what we need right now in our government,” Radler said.
Kelly-Wiecek said sometimes things must align for candidates of any gender to run successfully, pointing to when she ran for office after the Chickahominy District supervisor seat opened up.
“Sure, there might be women locally who I think would make great supervisors or other elected officials, but timing can be an issue and there may not be an opportunity for them to serve in an elected capacity at the moment.” Kelly-Wiecek said.
She added that if any females in the area did run for office she would support their decision. In addition, She encourages any women to contact their elected representatives if they are interested in being appointed to a board or commission.
“I think we have some very capable, very bright, energetic women in Hanover that I’d love to see at an elected official level,” Kelly-Wiecek said.
Radler agrees with the other women that many females don’t believe “they’re worthy to run” and aren’t encouraged to do so.
But, after seeking office in this past election, Radler doesn’t think gender plays a role in winning a seat to represent the people of Hanover.
“In Hanover, I think people tend to vote by the alphabet,” Radler said.
She explained that people are often too busy to do the research and instead find it easier to just check off “R” or “D” on a ballot.