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Chris Knisely made history as first female president of Athens City Council

Since the formation of the Athens City government in 1805, there has only been one female City Council president: Chris Knisely.

Knisely served as the first female president of the Athens City Council from 2015-2023. Although she did not have a direct path to the role, her perseverance led her to open up future opportunities for women on the City Council.

Knisely grew up in Washington, D.C., and later moved to Ohio to obtain her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education at Ohio Wesleyan University. Soon after graduating, she realized she did not want to work in education and branched out into nonprofit work.

“I worked for a number of nonprofit organizations in Central Ohio,” Knisely said. “There was the (Ohio) Foundation on the Arts and the Ohio Humanities Council, and both of those I ended up getting a little bit of financial experience which served well. I think it's good background for me.”

Knisely said being appointed as president was partly due to “being in the right place at the right time.” Before serving as president, she was an at-large representative from 2008-2015. Knisely was active with the League of Women Voters in Athens and the Neighborhood Association. 

Serving on City Council was a logical transition for Knisely, as she had been to meetings to talk on the planning commission.

“At the time of the opening, I'd been asked several times to serve on City Council, probably two or three times, and finally they said there's a vacancy that's happening,” Knisely said.

In 2015, Knisely applied to become the president of the Athens City Council and was elected during that year. Toward the beginning of her term, she focused on working with the Transportation Committee and Transportation Advisory Committee to make Athens a bicycle-friendly and more walkable city. Although Knisely helped to make this positive change in Athens, she doesn’t take all the credit and instead emphasizes the team aspect of Council. 

“We're really blessed to work with some very talented people as a city,” Knisely said. “Both the previous mayor and this mayor have been instrumental (with their) sense of vision about what our community can be, and I think they act on it. That is a really nice working relationship between the mayor and his administration and the City Council.”

Knisely’s presidency left a permanent mark on the Athens community, as she was the first woman to step into the role. Throughout her term, she mostly received support but still experienced the intimidation of being one of the only women on Council.

“Walking into committees and sometimes noticing that I would be the only female person can be a little bit daunting sometimes … (but) people were very accepting,” Knisely said. 

Micah McCarey, the director of OU’s Pride Center and an Athens City Council member, met Knisely after she attended his workshops on racial equity and encouraged him to join the Athens City Council. He admires her work ethic and attentiveness to Athens’ needs while being a part of a marginalized demographic among City Council members. 

“I hope the impact that folks like Chris have includes inspiring other girls and women to get engaged in community service and leadership,” McCarey said. “It also does take folks who are brave enough to bear the challenges that can come from being the only woman in charge, who was subjected to different kinds of pressures, just as a result of living in a patriarchal society.”

Eden Truax, a freshman studying mathematics, wrote a paper on Knisely for her Women and Writing class. She said it was refreshing to hear Knisely’s career did not go according to plan at first, but she still became successful in the end.

“I thought it was really interesting to just see how her life unfolded,” Truax said. “It's always nice hearing her perspective (as) somebody who's gone through it and graduated college and (said), ‘I'm not going to use this at all, I'm just going to do (something) totally different.’”

Knisely has also done a large amount of philanthropy work during her career, and she is passionate about the future of Athens and making sure OU students are knowledgeable about issues happening in the community.

Today, Knisely is retired but still working with the Athens City Council in a smaller capacity. Two of her main focuses are environmental work in Athens and saving the buildings part of The Ridges.

“I'm so committed to The Ridges and those buildings that are there can be saved, and also, that we develop that into a key part of the university and in the community,” Knisely said.

Becoming the first female president of the Athens City Council did not define Knisely’s career but it certainly was a large step in creating equality within leadership positions in local government.


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