Women in power: Nevada County leaders reflect on 19th Amendment, what a difference a century makes (VIDEO)
WOMEN IN POWER
County Supervisor Heidi Hall
County Supervisor Sue Hoek
Grass Valley Mayor Lisa Swarthout
Nevada City Mayor Erin Minett
County Sheriff Shannan Moon
Undersheriff Alicia Burget
NID Director Ricki Heck
NID Director Laura Peters
County Executive Officer Alison Lehman
Assistant CEO Mali Dyck
County Counsel Katharine Elliott
Public Defender Keri Klein
Assessor Sue Horne
Auditor-Controller Marcia Salter
Treasurer-Tax Collector Tina Vernon
“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
It was 100 years ago today — now commemorated as Women’s Equality Day — that those words, from the pen of Sen. Aaron Sargent, were signed into law as the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Yet it was more than 40 years earlier, in 1878, that the senator from Nevada City first introduced the resolution in the United States Senate to provide for women’s suffrage.
Further back, in 1869, it was Sargent’s wife, Ellen Clark Sargent, who started the Nevada County Woman’s Suffrage Association in her hometown of Nevada City. Among the group’s officers were: Ellen Clark Sargent, Caroline Mead Hanson, Sarah Green Davis, Elizabeth Cowles Leavitt, Emily Lindsey Rolfe, and Augusta Palmer.
From that point, more than 150 years ago today, those women, and more from Nevada County, continued to work to secure their right to vote. According to the Nevada County Historical Society, they were active in an 1896 campaign for a state referendum on the issue of women’s suffrage and held a convention in Nevada City in the spring of that year, and hosted speaking engagements with Susan B. Anthony and Rev. Dr. Anna Howard Shaw as part of the campaign.
Though they lost the campaign, they didn’t lose hope.
Neither Aaron Sargent, who died in 1887, nor Ellen Clark Sargent lived to see the 19th Amendment become the law of the land. And Ellen’s death on July 13, 1911, was just months ahead of California granting women the right to vote in October of that year.
The Sargents are recognized among the most ardent and key advocates in making the cause a reality, which women across the country, state and local communities are reflecting upon in commemoration of the 100th anniversary.
And today, the impact of the movement is on full display in Nevada County.
‘WHY NOT ME?’
According to Rutgers Center for American Women in Politics, women had closed the gender voting gap in the 1980s and today participate more in presidential elections than men. Even so, women make up less than a quarter of the congressional seats nationwide and less than one-third of the statehouse seats in California.
But a look at current leadership in Nevada County tells a different story, where the Board of Supervisors’ chair, the county executive officer, the sheriff, the mayors of both Grass Valley and Nevada City, the offices of county assessor, auditor-controller, county counsel, public defender and treasurer-tax collector are positions filled by women.
These leaders, whether elected or appointed, have risen to their positions of power despite decades of patriarchy, as well as daily microaggressions stemming from sexism that persists today.
Heidi Hall, the current chair of the Board of Supervisors, said she used to look for someone else to support for office. Hall said representation of one’s ideas is essential because “if you’re not at the table, you’re going to be on the menu.” People must show up to negotiate policy issues that matter to them, otherwise those issues will be ignored, she said.
But then Hall, who worked at the Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years, realized her name belonged among a roster of capable women whose values and experience could offer the Sierra Nevada region the leadership it needed.
She won office in 2016, just two years after losing a race for California’s 1st Congressional District to incumbent U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale). In March, she won reelection to her District 1 supervisor seat in convincing fashion, taking 54% of the vote despite a three-way race and avoided a runoff election in November.
Nevada County Sheriff Shannan Moon, who in 2018 made history as the county’s first elected female sheriff, and first recorded gay sheriff in California, said looking elsewhere for guidance instead of inward is a common problem for women leaders.
“I think many women are hesitant to take on leadership roles because they think, ‘Why me?’” Moon said. “At some point, you really need to shift to ‘Why not me?’”
Moon said she learned to be better at her job in part because of the sexism she encountered. Early on, she said she was assigned to handle all the calls involving women and children even though she was one of the few people on staff without children of her own.
“It was ironic because at the time I didn’t have any kids and all the guys had kids, but that was what I was delegated to handle,” Moon said.
Moon said she kept her head up in the face of implicit bias because she was learning about her passion.
“I overcame it by providing the best services possible,” Moon said. “Spending time talking with women and children, I learned so much about the root causes of crime, and individual criminogenic behavior.”
Moon said strong maternal figures in her family modeled responsible and compassionate leadership, but also helped her appreciate the importance of intersectionality, in that people are often disadvantaged by several social categorizations such as race, class, and gender.
Moon noted her maternal grandmother was not able to vote until decades after the 19th Amendment was ratified because she was Native American.
“Once given the right, she voted regularly,” Moon said.
Women have shown up and fought for issues before they ever were able to vote on them, or even sit on a jury, said Nevada County’s Public Defender Keri Klein.
According to Klein, Clara Shortridge Foltz, for whom the Los Angeles County Public Defenders’ building is named, introduced the idea of public defenders in 1893 — 80 years before women were allowed to serve on juries in all 50 states.
“Public defense was a women’s idea,” Klein said. “Foltz thought the deck was stacked against people who were dragged into court on criminal charges.”
Foltz realized prosecutors were professional lawyers who were paid by the counties, Klein said, setting the poor and accused up for failure if they were unable to afford their own lawyer.
Public defense is just the beginning of a long list of beneficiaries of women’s involvement in politics.
Since Hall joined a primarily male supervisor’s board, which now also includes District 4 Supervisor Sue Hoek, she said the board’s understanding of the mental health and homelessness crises in the area has grown. As Hall learned more about behavioral health, addiction and child abuse, she brought information before her colleagues and they took action.
“I started making sure that the mental health board did a presentation every year and it educated my colleagues,” Hall said. “They didn’t know, so they didn’t know to care.”
Hall said a similar shift took place in her board’s approach and response to homelessness. Hall said the board stopped excusing themselves from conversations on a statewide crisis and has since authored “one of the better support programs in the state.”
“They literally said, ‘We have no role to play on this issue,’ before I got on the board,” Hall said. “Now we have 5-to-zero votes on the issue, we’ve invested millions, we’re building buildings, we’ve created wraparound programs and a homeless outreach team.”
Ricki Heck, president of Nevada Irrigation District’s board of directors, said counter to the stereotype, she believes emotions — or being emotional — is an asset for women leaders in positions of power.
“I still find male colleagues who want to classify women as ‘emotional,’ needing to have their feelings be heard, and then ridiculed,” Heck said.
Women are empathic, Heck said, a beneficial quality for those in leadership.
“Women are often heart-driven,” Heck said. “We should not hide from it. Our emotions are our strength.”
Grass Valley Mayor Lisa Swarthout said women often have to go beyond what’s expected of men to prove they belong, and that’s meant her standing tall for her ideals and for herself.
“I always stand up for what is right,” Swarthout said. “It’s just who I am as a person.”
“As a woman I’ve had to prove myself, I’ve had to show up, participate and speak up,” Swarthout said. “I don’t allow myself to be bogged down by people who are misogynistic or sexist. I speak my mind and I don’t let people bully me.”
TRUTH TO POWER
Heck, who along with Laura Peters is one of two women serving on the NID board, said she has been dismissed and marginalized routinely as a woman working in a “man’s world” her entire career. She said the injustice in her workspace made her work harder to be heard.
“I have to be better, more detailed, support my facts, always be prepared and work harder to fight that sometimes dismissive attitude,” Heck said. “In many ways, I have to say these lessons have been a blessing and made me a stronger leader.”
Hall said although microaggressions are frustrating, she finds inspiration in the women around her who continue to promote their values and political progress for the betterment of their community.
“Women do their homework. They never get up on a stage without knowing 10 times more than they need to know,” Hall said.
Moon said the hard work she has done over the course of her career in law enforcement has paid off — as she is now a qualified and trusted leader as Nevada County’s sheriff.
“I have always wanted to be absolutely sure I was ready for a new project or promotion by having expert knowledge, taking on diverse assignments and multitasking high-priority issues,” Moon said. “Because of those experiences I have a lot of specific knowledge about our services.”
When Hall sees injustice she said she responds, but added that working in a male-dominated realm means reckoning with socialized sexism via implicit bias. Hall said even now it is common for her peers to overlook her ideas until they are reiterated by a male counterpart.
“Still today I will propose an idea that does not get picked up until a man restates it,” Hall said. “It’s incredibly frustrating.
“When one of the men on the board steps up and does something really hard they get fawned over, but when I do it’s sort of expected,” Hall continued. “I notice, but not one else notices because it fits into the milieu — this is the way things are.”
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer for The Union. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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