In the 1880s, a woman's place was on the homestead. In the 1950s, she was cleaning the house in a dress and high heels.
“A woman’s role in 2019 is whatever she wants it to be,” Martinsville City Councilwoman Jennifer Bowles said.
Bowles quickly set her sights on her goals. Shortly after graduating from the University of Virginia in 2014, she returned to her hometown ready to tackle a big leadership position. Bowles put her name in the running for a seat on the city council — and won.
At 24, the youngest elected individual in Martinsville City Council’s history, Bowles not only secured her position in the city’s leadership but also accepted a nomination by her fellow council members for a 2-year vice mayor position, a first for an African-American woman in Martinsville.
Bowles’s success didn’t fall into her lap, nor did her achievements come easily. She first earned her bachelor’s degree before hitting the campaign trail.
Claudrena Harold, an associate professor of history at UVA, recalled Bowles’ presence in her class, Black Fire. The course delved into the stories of African-Americans at the university and explored their paths to social and economic justice.
“First of all, she was one of my best students, one of my most inspiring students and one of my most engaged students,” Harold said. “It feels great. It feels affirming that she found a sense of purpose, a sense of vocation from my class.”
As a professor, Harold said she often encourages her students to speak truth to power and to work toward change in their communities.
“One of the things we really want to do is really prepare people and prepare students to make a change in public policy,” Harold said.
Bowles set out to do just that. The course motivated the then-student to make a difference in her community, which prompted her city council campaign upon graduation.
“One of the things that I really love and deeply appreciate about Jennifer is that her commitment to change was about, ‘How do I transform my local community?’” Harold said. “I think there are so many students who say, ‘I want to be a Supreme Court judge,’ or ‘I want to be president of the United States,’ or ‘I want to be a senator.’ But how do you transform local politics? How do you transform local communities? So to see someone who’s inspired by the class and takes lessons from the class and attempts to make a difference in her community, it’s affirming.”
A leadership issue
Bowles’s story of success comes at a time in America where more women are taking on public leadership roles than ever before.
“Women are gaining the opportunity not only to be more vocal, but woman are entering more and more spaces that were only reserved for men,” Bowles said. “Women have always been leaders and productive members of society, but we have often been silenced. More women are running for and winning office, which led to the most diverse class of general assembly members and members of Congress.”
During the past 54 years, women’s leadership positions in the U.S. Senate have mostly risen, although they took a dip in the 1970s. In 1965, a mere 2% of women made up the Senate, followed by no women from 1971 to 1977, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center. In 1993, 6% of the U.S. Senate was made up of women, followed by 14% a decade later. In 2013, 20% of senators were women.
This year, the U.S. Senate is made up of a quarter of women. Out of the 25 women currently elected to the Senate, 17 are Democrats, and eight are Republicans.
The current House of Representatives is made up of 23.4% women (or 102), 89 are of whom are Democrats and 13 Republicans.
“I think in this country, in a lot of places, there’s a desire for change. There’s a desire for transformation. I think in so many ways her life, her story, her policy agenda, it embodies all of that,” Harold said. “I think when you look at our political landscape, some of the most progressive and transformative politicians are women.”
A can-do attitude often goes a long way, but if people experience negativity from others or are talked down to, it can be detrimental to their productivity.
“People of all races, genders, ages and demographics can help support women by speaking positively to women. I have been in spaces were women were talked down to, and that is unacceptable,” Bowles said. “Everyone’s voice matters. The more we truly listen to people not on a superficial level, but deeply, we can understand viewpoints and move forward in a way that uplifts everyone.”
Believing in herself
With motivation from her teacher and support from her family, Bowles set out to accomplish her goal.
“If I don’t believe in myself, who will? You have to motivate yourself, drive yourself and push yourself to follow your dreams,” Bowles said. “If it has never been done, why can’t you be the first?”
Pushing through the campaign with a motivated mindset, in 2015, she sat among other city leaders at her first City Council meeting as a member rather than a civilian.
Harold rejoiced when she heard the good news.
“Jennifer becoming a part of local politics is not just one of my proudest moments, but her colleagues and her classmates take great pride in what she’s been able to do,” Harold said. “We are so proud of her.”
Elected to the Martinsville City Council in 2016, Vice Mayor Chad Martin has worked closely with Bowles since his first day in office in January of 2017.
“When you can provide the insight of a young African-American female to the dynamic of a body, the society at-large is enhanced because we are becoming a body that is representative of the society at-large,” Martin said. “Studies have shown the more diverse companies are, the more successful they are.
“She is a symbol to all young people. In the words of Goethe, ‘To be bold and mighty, forces will come to your aid.’ But more importantly, she is that small, still voice inside of all of us that says to push forward no matter what.”
‘I will not be silenced.’
In her personal life, Bowles projects a positive outlook and encourages others to do the same.
“The things I tell myself that I believe every woman should say daily are, I am enough. I am brave. I will not be silenced. I will stand up for myself and for those who cannot stand up for themselves. I will not be told what I can and cannot do. My best is my best, and I will not compare myself to anyone else,” Bowles said.
It’s especially empowering when people come together and support one another. That’s one of the many facets of the New Heights Foundation, an area nonprofit dedicated to helping schools, food ministries and other community organizations in Martinsville, Henry County and Patrick County.
President Lucas Moyer started New Heights Community Support in 2014, which formed the foundation in 2017.
As the New Heights Foundation Executive Director, Bowles often works with school-age girls through the nonprofit and encourages them along their journeys.
“Our young ladies are our future. If we do not prepare them and give them our wisdom and knowledge to make positive decisions, we are failing them. It is of the utmost importance to understand what they are thinking,” Bowles said. “Every generation is unique and we all face different obstacles. Therefore, we have to build relationships with young ladies, so they feel welcome to speak to us with openness and truth, so we can help them.”
No matter what role a woman chooses to take in 2019, her value no longer solely relies on cooking healthy meals, keeping a spotless house or managing a successful career. The key to unlocking women’s empowerment nowadays also relies upon strengthening one another through positive words, genuine conversations and authentic relationships.
“Where I think Jennifer fits in this is that we see women engaged in grassroots activism, but we also see women trusting other women to lead,” Harold said. “Saying, ‘Hillary Clinton can do the job.’ ‘Elizabeth Warren can do the job.’ ‘Nancy Pelosi can do the job.’ Women to lead, not just to organize. Not just to do that kind of hard work that women have always done, but to also be the leaders. To also be the policy makers, and making those critical policy decisions. So at the very local level, at the City Council level, to the school board level, we see that.”
In the words of Rosie the Riveter, poster child of women during World War II: “We can do it.” And we can do it all.