A woman stands at a podium.
Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Susan Ellenberg may be part of a 4-1 women majority after the November election. Photo by Brandon Pho.

Santa Clara County is closer to retaking its storied but challenged title as “Feminist Capital of the World.”

After November’s general election, women will outnumber men 4-1 on the county’s powerful Board of Supervisors for the first time. While policy decisions don’t always boil down to gender, current and prospective supervisors say a supermajority of women would be able to prioritize families and their immediate needs, such as free child care, that have been lacking in the past.

“When women have a critical mass on a governing body or a majority, policies tend to focus more intensively on the well-being of children and families, which of course translates to healthier communities overall,” Board President Susan Ellenberg told San José Spotlight.

Forty years ago, an unprecedented number of women took leadership roles in Santa Clara County and San Jose thanks to energized activism and a post-Watergate dissatisfaction with male politics. For the first time, the board of supervisors was dominated by women 3-2 in 1980, shaping a political arena that was hard to replicate across most of the U.S.

But over the following decades, that image faded. Male supervisors eventually outnumbered women again, flipping 4-1 at times. In 2013, there were no women on the board at all — until former Supervisor George Shirakawa pleaded guilty to perjury and abuse of public funds, resulting in a board vacancy which Supervisor Cindy Chavez filled in a special election.

In recent years, Supervisors Ellenberg and Sylvia Arenas have joined Chavez in forming a narrow majority over their two male colleagues, Supervisors Otto Lee and Joe Simitian.

The top two candidates to succeed outgoing supervisors Simitian and Chavez this November are all women.

For Chavez’s seat in District 2, the race is between former San Jose Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen and Chavez’s chief of staff, Betty Duong — a race that could add another layer of history making as the county has never seen a Vietnamese American supervisor.

“I absolutely agree with President Ellenberg — as mothers we tend to be protectors of our children so when we come together we tend to focus more on issues that add value to the core principles of holding families together,” Nguyen told San José Spotlight. “That’s how I see the county government. To be a conduit between local government and holding families together.”

Duong said the next board makeup will reflect the county’s evolving government landscape — renewing the county’s commitment to families.

“We’re not just witnessing a numerical shift, but a transformative moment in county leadership,” Duong told San José Spotlight.

For Simitian’s seat in District 5, the race is between Mountain View Councilmember Margaret Abe-Koga and Sally Lieber, chair of the State Board of Equalization.

Abe-Koga said she grew up on the story of the county’s 1980s wave of women governance.

“One of the main reasons I ran for Mountain View City Council in the first place was this issue of whether the city should build a low-income childcare facility and it was teetering on the edge. When I looked at the council at the time, there was one woman and no one who had children in schools and I realized that was a missing voice,” Abe-Koga told San José Spotlight.

Lieber said “It’s essential that women lead on strengthening the safety net and protecting the most vulnerable. And prevention and early intervention, something that is second, or even first nature for women leaders will always be the most effective strategies.”

Ellenberg doesn’t suggest that women are all interested in the same topics but argues that whether it’s transportation or the environment they tend to look through the lens of children and families.

“I ran for this seat with the intention of expanding access to high quality child care across the county,” Ellenberg told San José Spotlight, adding it affects a variety of pressing county issues beyond children — helping parents become more stably housed and boosting the economy. “It’s wonderful when men are feminists, but even better when women can represent themselves.”

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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