Ranking Cities Through Women's Eyes

Scottsdale, Ariz., has many qualities women want: low divorce rate, low crime, relaxation.

Sue Cooney may be the quintessential Scottsdale woman.

Seated on a rattan sofa under a date palm, Ms. Cooney is lounging to the rhythms of the Hyatt Regency's popular flamenco guitarist and doing what women do better here than anywhere else in the country - chilling out.

It happens every time she returns to her winter home from Kansas City. Even her hair, normally wound tight in curls, goes straight. "I am such a relaxed person when I come here," she says. "It's something about the desert."

Maybe. But it's also about low unemployment, low divorce rates, and short commuting time, three of many attributes that women value in a city, according to a recent national survey.

This tony Phoenix suburb, where a high density of spas surely contributes to its top honors in the survey's relaxation category, ranks among the top-five cities overall in delivering what women want, according to the November issue of Ladies' Home Journal. The magazine's readers said the most sought-after characteristics included low crime, well-paying jobs, and good child care. The ranking also offered a look at "more earthly concerns," like cities' beauty and romance potential.

While some feminists says those latter criteria trivialize women, many see value in articulating women's priorities. Some hope, too, that rankings like this one will encourage officials to think more about how their cities serve various subsets of society.

"It's exciting, this awareness of the need to think in terms of being woman-friendly," says Ann Timmer, president of the Arizona chapter of the National Organization for Women.

A female-oriented focus has made a difference in other arenas, she adds, noting that the influx of women to elected office in 1992 paved the way for a new dialogue on issues such as reproductive rights, family leave, and women's health.

Reigning women

Indeed, women's representation in government (another criteria of the survey) is strong in Scottsdale.

In addition to Mayor Sam Campana and her all-women staff, the city attorney, clerk, auditor, and deputy police chief are women. Three of the seven city council members are also women, as is the majority of the school board.

C.C. Goldwater Hedley, granddaughter of former United States Sen. Barry Goldwater, believes that has to do with the small-town feeling of politics in Scottsdale in spite of its growing population of more than 190,000.

Mayor Campana, who has been known to drop by with pizza to see constituents, notes that the state's popular governor is also a woman and that there are women on the November ballot for all five of the state's top slots.

It's important, she says, because women bring a more consensus-building element to politics.

Women's historical role in the West and Midwest may be part of the reason for the regions' strong showings in the survey, according to Annis Hopkins, an instructional specialist in the Women's Studies department at Arizona State University. (Four of the top seven cities in the magazine's 200-city survey are in the West - Scottsdale; Irvine, Calif.; Lakewood, Colo.; and Thousand Oaks, Calif. The top two, overall, were Ann Arbor, Mich. and Madison, Wis.)

All but one of the states that granted women suffrage before the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920 were in the West. Western and Midwestern colleges were the first to become coeducational. Also, men often established their families in pioneer settings and then went back East or to gold-rush country to make money, Ms. Hopkins says.

"Women ran the place," she says. "That didn't happen back East."

Gondalas in the desert

Named "America's most liveable city" in 1993 by the US Conference of Mayors, Scottsdale is a predominantly white community with a median household income of more than $48,000. Housing prices range from $60,000 to $6 million, with an average of $180,000.

Within the city are more golf courses per square mile than any other city in the West and more five-star resorts than any other destination in the country. Unemployment is less than 2 percent, and only four cities are safer in terms of crimes against people.

The abundant sunshine (an average of 300 sunny days a year) and dry desert air put Scottsdale near the bottom of the beauty-potential index, which included a measurement of ultraviolet rays. But those same attributes appeal to many Scottsdale women.

The desert is very much a part of why Scottsdale is among the Top 10 cities for romance, Ms. Goldwater Hedley says, and why Scottsdale residents have always incorporated so much of it into their architecture. It was in the Scottsdale desert, after all, that Frank Lloyd Wright established his famous architectural school, Taliesin West.

Back at the Hyatt, Marco O'Brien ferries lovers past strolling couples and open-pit fires in one of four Venetian-made sandoli (25-foot gondola-like boats) that troll the Hyatt's pond nightly. With a classically trained voice, he croons "Return to Sorrento" to his fares.

"I've seen proposals, people falling in love out here," he says with a sweep of his hand. "You can't get any more romantic than this."

Giving a tour of the renowned Spa at Camelback Inn, Valerie Lee stops for a moment at the outdoor lap pool and takes in the view. Though it is late afternoon in mid-October, women lounge against a backdrop of vibrant bougainvillaea, desert stone, and barrelhead cactus. The Phoenix skyline is just visible between the humps in the mountain from which the inn takes its name.

"It's very much about the surroundings," she says. "It's not like you can pick this up and put it on the fifth floor of a building in New York."

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