During the State Assembly’s annual Woman of the Year celebration, held earlier this month, I was honored to receive the award from the 25th Assembly District’s Bob Wieckowski. This annual event has been a Capitol tradition since 1987, highlighting the achievements of outstanding women throughout California during Women’s History Month. This year’s theme was the passage of women’s right to vote in California in 1911.
The speeches of the day focused on how far we have come—or not come, in electing women to public office. It got me thinking about the past few decades in Santa Clara County, and what has happened to women being elected to local public office. When I came to Bill Wilson Center in 1983, our area was heralded as the Political Feminist Capital of the World.
Santa Clara County got an early start in electing female candidates. California granted women’s suffrage in 1911, and during the first year in which the United States 19th Amendment was in place (1920), Sunnyvale elected California’s first female mayor in Edwina Benner.
In 1971, the Santa Clara County Chapter of National Women’s Political Caucus
(NWPC) formed and within six months had 1,000 members. The NWPC facilitated political campaigns and provided a network of “Good Ole Gals” to counter male political culture, as well as promoted female candidates in the state.
Janet Gray Hayes became the first female mayor of San Jose and of a large U.S. city in 1975, and the doors to women in local and state politics were thrown open.
San Jose hosted the national organization’s annual meeting in 1977, furthering the cultivation of new female candidates and giving rise to the aforementioned title of Political Feminist Capital. The Bay Area became an incubator for feminist politics and we served as a model to other states.
When the calendars turned to 1981, there were six female mayors among Santa Clara County’s 15 cities, and in San Jose seven out of 11 members of the City Council were women.
Susie Wilson, Dianne McKenna, Zoe Lofgren, Blanca Alvarado, Susan Hammer and Marilyn Perry are but a few of the names who led our local political scene during this era of political prosperity for women.
But fast-forward to our current political landscape and successful female candidates have become scarcer and scarcer.
A look at the current 15 city councils in Santa Clara County shows Campbell and Cupertino have no women amongst their 10 councilmembers. Throw in Los Altos Hills, Monte Sereno, Morgan Hill and Sunnyvale, and only four councilmembers are women—out of 22 seats. Only Los Altos (four of five) and Santa Clara (four of seven) have city councils with a majority of female officeholders. We do have an elected female in Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith, another bright spot.
Women represent only 31 percent of councilmembers in Santa Clara County’s 15 cities, despite making up nearly 50 percent of the population, according to a 2012 census.
The country overall is not showing any better representation. In regards to women holding office at the federal level, the U.S. currently ranks 98th globally.
Santa Clara County has long been at the forefront of electing women, but we have fallen behind as far as equal and fair representation. We can do better.
Discussions are taking place about what we need to do to encourage more women to enter the tech field in Silicon Valley. Perhaps we need to pay more attention to elected offices, too. Concerted efforts should be made to encourage more women to become candidates. We are past the point of seeing this issue as merely being about equal opportunity. It is about good, balanced governance.