Remembering Janet Gray Hayes, San Jose’s First Female Mayor

Janet Gray Hayes, San Jose’s first female mayor and the first woman to lead a major U.S. city, died Monday in the Saratoga home she shared with her daughter.

The former mayor was healing from pneumonia and injuries from a fall, according to the Mercury News. She had a stroke Sunday morning and died a day later surrounded by her four children. She was 87 years old.

Upon news of Hayes' death, many people who got their start in politics under her tenure talked about how she was a role model, how she had a way of being both firm and kind and how she opened doors for other women.

“She made San Jose a better city, not just a bigger city—that was her slogan and it was really true,” said Sen. Jim Beall, who was 24 years old when Hayes appointed him to the San Jose Planning Commission. “I think she was an inspiration to many local women and got them into politics to play a bigger role and have a bigger voice in San Jose.”

After winning a runoff election in November 1974, Hayes declared Santa Clara County the “feminist capital of the world” because of the female majority on both the City Council and the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. National publications took note, printing photos and stories of her that appeared in U.S. News & World Report, Family Circle and People.

“Hayes became an important role model for women in politics,” according to the San Jose State University’s Online Archive of California. “Her success in government represented a watershed for politically minded women in the region.”

She was overwhelmingly elected to a second term and served as mayor until 1982. Before her historic 1974 election, she served a term as a councilmember and vice mayor. But her early start in local politics was a resident, eight months pregnant, trying—to no avail—to get the city to put a school crossing guard in her neighborhood.

During her time in office, Hayes pushed for smart growth in urban planning and improving access to the mayor’s office.

“If it wasn’t for her on the council, there probably would be urban sprawl and development stretching from San Jose all the way to Gilroy and along the hillsides,” Beall said. “She initiated city plans that made it difficult to overturn. At the same time, she started the development of downtown and the convention center.”

Hayes moved to San Jose from the Midwest in 1956 with her husband, Kenneth, a doctor who took a job at Agnews State Hospital. She got a job as a psychiatric social worker for the Adult Guidance Center in San Jose, six years after earning her masters in social work from the University of Chicago.

After settling into life in San Jose, she began to get more involved in the community. The League of Women Voters named her president of both the San Jose and Bay Area chapters. In 1966, she was appointed to the San Jose Redevelopment Board. Five years later, she ran for the council, when Norm Mineta became mayor.

“She will always be known for her historical and political achievements, and rightfully so,” said Angelica Ramos, president of the National Women’s Political Caucus of Silicon Valley. “But [she] also brought women up behind her, blazed trails and became the mentor that women have needed to succeed in this profession. That’s the legacy she left for our generation, community and women.”

2 Comments

  1. I was at a city council meeting, I think it was June 1996 when the expansion of our airport was being debated. The room fell silent as the former mayor walked up to the citizen’s microphone for her two minutes, and quietly asked Mayor Hammer and the council to “make it better before you make it bigger”. Mayor Hammer thanked her pollitely. But she and the majority voted to make it bigger anyhow. I wonder if any of them remember that when they walk through those under-utilized buildings today?

  2. My first real political involvement in San Jose was walking precincts with Janet Gray in her first run for Mayor. It was then she told she had deliberately cultivated having skin thick enough to take it and thin enough to feel — something I did try to do. I also remember visits to her home for meetings when she took some small Calder sculptures from her mantel and let my young daughter play with them — really the start for a lifelong love of art. She remained a force long past her term, and could muster forces to support her causes like few ever could. Add to that her legacy of reining in rampant expansion of the city boundaries and the many women in public service she inspired and mentored — quite a legacy! I will miss her as a friend and wise counselor. Thank you, Janet Gray.