The ‘Year of the Woman’ makes its mark in Silicon Valley
Susan Ellenberg was one of four women elected during the "Year of the Woman" in Silicon Valley (courtesy of Grace Hase)

A record number of women across the nation ran for political office last year – many first-time candidates – and despite some gender discrimination, the “pink wave” swept four women into top elected offices here in Silicon Valley.

Newly-elected county Supervisor Susan Ellenberg remembers how empowered she felt watching Hillary Clinton’s concession speech after the 2016 election.

“She said that we need to be doing as much as we can for as many people as we can as often as we can,” Ellenberg said. “It struck me that as a school board member, I didn’t feel like I was working at 100 percent of my capacity. I absolutely felt called to do more in public service.”

Clinton’s speech, along with an open District 4 supervisorial seat, became the catalyst for Ellenberg’s campaign. A former school board member for San Jose Unified School District, she joined a wave of women across the country that were running for office in the 2018 election. Experts would deem it the “Year of the Woman” – 26 years after the 1992 groundbreaking election that gave it its namesake.

“It’s incredibly exciting and so long overdue,” Ellenberg said. “What we really have to get to is where the year of the woman isn’t a thing because women are represented in elected office, in corporate positions and on boards in the same numbers as men so it’s not particularly noticeable.”

Women set new records

Last year, 117 women won congressional seats and a record-setting 476 women ran as Democrats or Republicans in primaries across the nation. And the trend trickles down to local elected offices. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, there are 297 women mayors, including 23 serving in America’s 100 largest cities.

And in the South Bay, Ellenberg wasn’t the only Santa Clara County woman in her class. Maya Esparza and Pam Foley joined the San Jose City Council, both claiming seats previously held be men. Foley called the new dynamic a “sisterhood.”

There used to be three women on the 11-person council. Now there are five – nearly the council majority.

“I think the diversity in representation is really important,” Foley said. “Women bring a different perspective. We handle arguments a little bit differently, we look at things a little bit differently. That doesn’t mean one is better than the other, but women have a different sensibility.”

Though she’s excited to be elected in a year for women, Foley said she doesn’t necessarily feel she’s part of the movement – or any movement really. Her focus was to bring a small business owner perspective to the city and teach her 22-year-old daughter to follow her dreams.

“I want her to know and women like her to know that you should pursue the path of your destiny and be strong in that way,” Foley said.

Esparza echoed Foley’s excitement for a new five-woman council and added the county has seen other female successes with Ellenberg and the recent Democratic Party delegate election. “I think we’re seeing a lot of engagement overall,” she said.

Garrick Percival, a political science professor at San Jose State University, said that the South Bay has served as a “catalyst” for women around the country for decades now – 2018 was no different.

“Silicon Valley has been real leaders in terms of feminism and women playing a really crucial role of shaping political life in the Valley,” he said. “That’s been going on for a better of 40 years now.”

Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith, who could not be reached for comment, also won re-election in November by fending off a male challenger.

Gender discrimination in Silicon Valley 

But even in a year where women dominated the political landscape, all three women faced gender discrimination on the campaign trail. Some voters told them they wouldn’t vote for them because of their gender.

“It kind of cut me the wrong way,” Foley said. “Let’s face it, we have some issues in society right now and guys are having a hard time dealing with women saying no more.”

Esparza and Ellenberg also said they had people question their abilities as a female elected official. But, in some cases, they won votes because they’re female.

“I wasn’t running specifically to appeal to women or to alienate men,” Ellenberg said. “But my gender is a fact so people remarked on it just as often in a supportive way as a critical way.”

Gender-related issues in the District 4 race, however, didn’t stop there. In a post #MeToo world, the primaries swirled with allegations of sexual harassment that pushed two of Ellenberg’s male competitors – Dominic Caserta and Pierluigi Oliverio – out of the race.

Percival said that helped contribute to Ellenberg’s landslide victory.

“No election operates in a vacuum,” he said. “The #MeToo national movement has been developing until the time it got to this election so all these female candidates were being evaluated in this broader context.”

Contact Grace Hase at grace@sanjosespotlight.com or follow her @grace_hase on Twitter.

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