TAMPA —No one ever questioned Sandy Freedman's bona fides as a trailblazer.
She was the second woman elected to Tampa City Council and the first to become council chair. In 1986, she became Tampa's first female mayor. She had the toughness required to repeatedly shatter glass ceilings.
But Freedman, 75, was greatly dismayed a few weeks ago when she learned there soon would be no women on Tampa's City Council, one of the area's most progressive government bodies. That hasn't happened since 1971.
Yolie Capin, the only woman currently with a seat, is term-limited. And none of the women on the primary ballot advanced to next month's runoffs.
"I don't know if we're taking a step backwards,'' Freedman said, "but I don't think we're making the kinds of strides that I had hoped 20 years ago we would have made by now."
The prospect of an all-male city council is especially confounding given that women now make up nearly a quarter of the 116th Congress with 126 female members — the highest percentage in U.S. history.
Women won enough seats last year on the Hillsborough County Commission, the most powerful political entity in the county, to create a female majority and swing the vote to Democrats for the first time in 14 years. Across the bay, women also make up the majority on St. Petersburg's City Council and the Pinellas County Commission.
It was the historic surge of female candidates that inspired Ella Coffee to throw her name into the running for one of Tampa's seven city council seats.
From its beginning, Coffee said, her campaign was dogged by complications from her breast cancer treatments. She knew her chances of winning the District 5 seat weren't good.
But she said she expected to see more women on the ballot. Instead, she was one of just four women among the 24 candidates vying for a council seat.
That was down from 6 candidates in 2015 and 7 in 2011.
"The question now is how did we allow this to sneak up on us and not have more women prepared to run in our local races, and how do we get more women prepared for next time," Coffee said.
The heated rhetoric and partisan nature of today's political battles can act as a deterrent for some potential women candidates, especially those with children, said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida professor emeritus who studies women's roles in government. Some women also face the challenge of raising enough money to compete against better-known, better-funded male candidates, she said.
But MacManus thinks the results in Tampa City Council races a few weeks ago were a "fluke.''
"I don't expect it again,'' she said. "Tampa has a history of women who have found success in high-profile positions here, and a majority of undergraduates in just about every institution in America are females.''
But the path to a political career for young women is different than it used to be, MacManus said. Like Freedman, many women have historically looked to the local level when starting a political career. But many of the young women who won elections last year were recent college graduates running for state Legislature.
Universities play a large role in guiding students to a career in state and national politics, MacManus said, be it through politically-focused on-campus organizations or creating opportunities for students to intern as legislative aides or work on political campaigns. Candidates running for a legislative position also have a better change of getting funding and organizational support from political parties, she said.
Another reason women do better in legislative races, Freedman said, is that "a woman's voice is just one of many."
"I still think it's very hard for some people to accept when a woman is the only person running the show," Freedman said.
Tampa isn't the only local city where that mind-set seems to apply. When the only woman on Clearwater's city council retired last December, council members named Jay Polglaze as her replacement, making the Clearwater board all-male and all-white
Still, Coffee said this year's Tampa results haven't ended her goal of one day affecting policies and politics on a local level, where one woman's vote can result in tangible change.
"When you look at all of the barriers, all of the divisiveness and nastiness in today's politics, is public service really worth it? Yes, it's worth it to me," she said. "I think this next generation is really going to lead that charge and I want to do whatever I can to make it easier for them to charge their own path. So hands down, you'll see my name on a local ballot again. I'm not going anywhere."
Contact Anastasia Dawson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.