For the first time in 230 years, the city will be led by two women.
MARTINSVILLE – Martinsville made history this month. Some would say they’re overdue, but better late than never.
For the first time in the city’s 230-year-old history, two women were chosen as the top elected officials.
In November, city residents broke records voting for Kathy Lawson. An incumbent looking for her third term on council, Lawson broke a record set just two years earlier. That record was previously held by Jennifer Bowles, as she was elected in 2018 to her second term on council.
Now both women are working together to run the city. Under Martinsville’s form of government, voters select city council members. Then the council appoints a mayor and vice mayor. During their organizational meeting this month, council members chose Lawson and Bowles as mayor and vice mayor, respectively.
This is the third time Lawson will be leading the city. She also served as the first female mayor in the city’s history from 2008 to 2010. In 2016, she was voted onto the council for the second time. Lawson made it three terms with her win in November.
Bowles also is not a stranger to the vice mayor’s chair. This will be her second term in the position. She called the opportunity a great privilege and promises to serve to the best of her ability.
“I was a mere 24 years old when I first served as vice mayor,” Bowles said. “Seven years later, I have gained much more experience, wisdom and knowledge and I strive to be a better councilwoman and vice mayor each day.”
The First Female Mayor of Martinsville
Bowles noted that besides Lawson, only one other female Martinsville resident, Kim Adkins, ever served as mayor. She looked forward to being part of the historical change.
“I believe it has been a long time coming and I am very thankful for the opportunity to serve the residents in this role,” Bowles said. “It is sad to say we are still accomplishing firsts in 2021, but that is not to diminish the honor and privilege I feel in this role.”
The first female mayor of Martinsville says her city is becoming more inclusive in comparison with other rural Virginia localities.
“To be real honest, I think Martinsville is more progressive than some other cities might be. If you look at councils across the Commonwealth, you’ll see the majority of them are men,” Lawson said. “I don’t know why that is. But Martinsville, I believe, is more progressive in how we view leaders. And that it’s not necessarily by your gender or your color, it’s because of what you bring to the table.”
Lawson first joined the city council following the 2006 election. Bowles began her first four-year term after the 2014 election. The two worked closely together during Bowles’ first term.
“She and I work well together,” Lawson said. “We’re the oldest and the youngest.”
However, the two did not let a few years get between them. In fact, they consider it an asset.
“I think that is very important for me, so that I can understand more adequately, or more in depth, another person’s perspective that is much younger than I am,” Lawson said. “I think there are a lot of times that people get hung up in that. They don’t appreciate the younger generation’s opinions or viewpoints or how they want to go about doing something. It’s imperative if you’re going to be a progressive, successful community, you have to reach out. You have to know the desires of all citizens. Working with Jennifer is a pleasure.”
Bowles also says she’s excited to start working together in leadership roles.
“I am looking forward to continuing to work with Kathy more closely. [I] expect leading with her will be an honor and joy as all of my time on council has been,” Bowles said. “I hope for us to share experience, knowledge and wisdom with each other as we both have been exposed to different situations in life. [I] hope this will help us as we lead the city without limits.”
New Plans for Martinsville
As mayor, Lawson has several revitalization ideas, mainly in the uptown area.
“We’ve got a lot of positivity going on in our city and I want to keep that momentum going. It’s easy to criticize and be a naysayer, but I believe that our community has a lot to offer everyone,” Lawson said. “Revitalizing or uplifting our downtown area or our uptown area, whichever you want to call it, is very important to our community as a whole. It is a proven fact that a vibrant uptown is the core for a successful community. We have to continue to work toward that in Martinsville because we are the center of our community, whether it’s city or county, we’re still the center. Revitalizing some of these buildings we have uptown, giving them new purpose. We have some new businesses that are interested in coming uptown. So just keeping that momentum going of positivity is very important.”
For Bowles, she plans to use her position to continue the work she started in her council term.
“As vice mayor, I plan to continue what I was doing as a councilwoman. The number one goal is to be a voice for all citizens of Martinsville, regardless of how much money you make, where you live, what you look like or what gender you are,” Bowles said. “I will continue to make decisions based on factual information. [I] will not be bullied by any council members or pressured into making a decision based on the media. I will listen and respect all ideas and opinions, but ultimately my decisions will be based on research, data and what is in the best interest of our residents.”
Kamala Harris Inspires Action
As the nation looks toward inaugurating its first female Vice President on Wednesday, the Martinsville mayor says Kamala Harris will likely face greater challenges to her authority due to her gender.
“I hope that people will accept her as a leader,” Lawson said. “In the good old boy network – and I don’t say that ugly, I’m just saying it in factuality – when you have positions that have always been held by men, when a woman steps into that position, you have to earn that respect. Even though you should receive it automatically, a woman still has to work harder.”
Bowles also anticipates an uphill battle for Harris, but says the soon-to-be Vice President’s example inspires her in her work as a public servant.
“I hope Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is respected by her colleagues and is allowed the opportunity to share and implement her plan for our country. [I] am very concerned with the recent events in D.C. that unfortunately, she may not be welcomed by all,” Bowles said. “I do believe she will put her head down and do the work. [I] am inspired and motivated to see a woman who looks like me elected to the second highest office in our country.”
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Serving Martinsville Again
Both women expressed excitement about their reprised roles.
“It’s awesome. It is an honor. I’ve always said that it is an honor to serve. Challenging as it though may be some days, it is truly an honor to be able to serve our community and our citizens,” Lawson said. “Knowing that you have citizens who have entrusted to you the position, it steps you up a level.”
Bowles also looked forward to serving again.
“I feel very thankful the City Council appointed me to this role. [I] am even more thankful to the citizens who felt I could be a voice for them on the council,” Bowles said. “I owe a great debt to all the women before me who have ran for City Council and been in leadership positions. Without them, I would not have the opportunity to [share] this moment with the mayor. I truly cannot put it into words how proud it makes me feel.”
Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected]