San Jose, the 10th largest city in America, was once dubbed as “the Feminist Capital of the World.”
But as the years wore on, the title faded as fewer women graced Silicon Valley’s elected offices. San Jose scraped the bottom of a Pew research study six years ago comparing men to women ratios on city councils. And the city’s only had two female mayors in its entire history.
Now that could all change.
The November election could boost eight women into city political offices—including the possibility for Supervisor Cindy Chavez to become the third female mayor of San Jose. And one woman is fighting to stay in the halls of power. Altogether, the San Jose City Council could have 8 women on its dais next year—almost 72% of its 11 members.
“It’s really exciting that we’re gonna have a number of women potentially elected to the City Council,” former San Jose Vice Mayor Rose Herrera, told San José Spotlight. “It’s about time.”
After former San Jose Mayor Janet Gray Hayes became the first female mayor of a major U.S. city in 1975, a wave of female elected officials came in San Jose. In 1981, seven out of its 11 city councilmembers in San Jose were women.
Then it became Man Jose.
Since Gray Hayes’ tenure on the council, San Jose has only elected one other female mayor, Susan Hammer, who served from 1991 to 1999. In the last 24 years, only 12 other women were elected into office, city records show.
Meet the women
Chavez, who has been in elected office for 17 years, is competing against Councilmember Matt Mahan for mayor—the top political seat in San Jose. Chavez is among the 12 women who have been elected to the San Jose City Council, elected in 1998.
Right now, San Jose has five women on its council: Councilmembers Magdalena Carrasco, Maya Esparza, Sylvia Arenas, Dev Davis and Pam Foley.
Foley won re-election in June with no challengers, and Davis will maintain her seat after losing a bid for mayor. Carrasco is terming out, and another woman could possibly replace her—former Assemblywoman Nora Campos, who held the East San Jose seat from 2000-2010. Campos is facing off with County Board of Education Trustee Peter Ortiz.
Another woman candidate, Irene Smith, could replace termed-out Councilmember Raul Peralez in the fight for the downtown District 3 seat. She’ll face off with San Jose-Evergreen Community College District Trustee Omar Torres.
In San Jose’s District 7, Esparza is fending off a challenge from Fire Captain Bien Doan.
Arenas is seeking higher office, mounting a formidable run for county supervisor. If she doesn’t win that race, however, she’ll remain in her District 8 council seat.
If all the female candidates in San Jose elections prevail and Arenas stays on the council, San Jose will see a female-majority City Council, headed by a woman, for the first time in decades.
A fight for representation
Herrera, the former vice mayor who termed out in 2016, grew up watching a wave of female leaders take charge in the South Bay. But since she won her race, female representation dwindled. During most of her time in office, former Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen was the only other woman on the dais.
After Nguyen left office in 2014, only Herrera and Carrasco remained.
“If you don’t have a seat at the table, your perspective is not there,” Herrera said. “(Having women’s perspective) is really important when you’re making decisions that affect a million people.”
Herrera fought hard to see more women at the dais. She also pushed her colleagues to adopt a Gender Pay Equity policy to address the pay disparity between men and women in 2015.
Foley, the District 9 councilmember who won her seat in 2018, said women candidates tend to have a harder time building their networks and asking for support.
“The women who are successful in running for office have learned how to ask for money, how to ask for support and endorsements,” Foley told San José Spotlight, adding traditional resources needed to win elections have often gone to men. “It’s harder for us to ask for help. We’re the ones doing the work, but it doesn’t mean that we’re raising our hands to run for political office.”
Reclaiming the title
Local organizations, such as Democratic Activists for Women Now (DAWN), have spent years coaching and supporting female candidates to increase representation and enhance women’s rights.
“While we have made gains, I think generally women are dissatisfied with how things in our government are running,” Frances Herbert, vice president of DAWN, told San José Spotlight. “With the attack on women’s rights, there will be more women stepping up to run for office.”
Herbert also noted a majority female San Jose City Council does not guarantee women’s rights and perspective.
“We must elect women and like-minded men that embody these policy agendas,” Herbert said. DAWN endorsed Torres over Smith in the downtown District 3 race.
Foley said she’s excited to see the momentum among female candidates this election, though she thinks the fight for the mayor’s seat will be a close race.
“We may have a female mayor this time and we will be able to reclaim the title “Feminist Capital of the World’,” Foley said. “I really love that.”
The runoff election is November 8.
Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.