Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero was the first woman elected as Knoxville's chief elected official. In the three years since Rogero was elected, women have continued to be underrepresented in the government; according to research by Rutgers University, women hold 18.5 percent of the positions in the U.S. Congress.
America's unbalanced legislature places it 80th on the Inter-Parliamentary Union's list of gender-equal national governments – just 12 spots below the U.S. sits Turkey, at 14.3 percent.
With Turkey's municipal elections coming up on March 31, the Turkish government invited Rogero to visit the country to discuss the importance of female participation in politics. From Jan. 27-Feb. 2, the Knoxville mayor met with her counterpart mayors of Adana, Bornova and Aydin, as well as members of parliament and other officials and civic groups.
Rather than delve into the politics of Turkey, Rogero sought to share her experience as a woman involved in public service.
"What I shared with the Turkish women is that you have to be willing to run and you have to be willing to lose and you have to be willing to run again," Rogero said Tuesday.
Rogero also stressed the importance of including both men and women at "the table" in government.
"All of this was about encouraging the women to run and encouraging the men to understand what value this brings to their political parties, to their communities, and then to their government structure," Rogero said.
The disparity isn't imagined: just 5.58 percent of mayors are women and only one governor out of 81 is female. Despite hailing from the U.S., Rogero identified with the frustration of Turkish women, who lack representation in elected bodies at all levels of legislature.
"I have the same frustration here," Rogero said. "I think they have more structural disadvantages in that there are some barriers for women to getting involved. We've been pushing for this for many years in our country and I think some of our biggest barriers now are ourselves."
The primary barrier facing potential candidates, women reported, is the issue of raising campaign capital. Endorsing the power of door-to-door campaigning, Rogero encouraged the use of social media and phone calls to start grassroots movements.
"Social media is big in Turkey," Rogero said. "Everybody's got a phone, everybody's got a Facebook account, and so it's a way to address some of that differential in finding resources."
Forging bonds with many Turkish officials, the mayor of Bornova, Kamil Okyay Sindir, expressed to Rogero an interest in becoming a "sister city" with Knoxville.
"I invited all of them to come," Rogero said, "and I certainly hope we will see some of them in the future."
Rogero also paid for her 17-year-old granddaughter, Jada, to join her on the trip.
"One of the things that actually I could relate quite often was that if you want women to get involved, you need to really start at a young age," Rogero said. "The reason I brought Jada was to help mentor her and expose her to women in politics. And of course also to the culture of Turkey."
Affirming the possibility of change, Rogero's presence legitimized current efforts by Turkish citizens to afford women greater inclusion.
"It just further buttresses the work that they're doing, further supports that this is a good thing," Rogero said. "It supports the idea that if you're going to have a democracy, better decisions are made when the people around the table are more reflective of the population."