While politics has long been seen as a male endeavor, three of northern California’s most passionate female politicians took the floor at Saint Mary’s last week to dispel that notion and to engage, encourage and inform students about political involvement.

Hosted by the Women’s Resource Center, the evening discussion included Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, and Stockton politician Rev. Elena Kelly.

Emmett McIntyre, Sharon Sabotta, Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, Rev. Elena Kelly, and Oakland Mayor Jean Quan

Becoming Leaders

Each woman on the panel found that her calling to politics was to fight where no one else would.

Quan, who was elected in 2010, is both the first female and first Asian American mayor of Oakland. A central target of the Occupy movement last year, Quan has faced an onslaught of public and media criticism about her controversial responses to the impassioned protests.

She has her doubters, but by reaching out to the public and creating more opportunities for the residents of Oakland, Quan is building a reputation that she is working hard to meet the challenges of the city.

As the public figure responding to high-profile cases such as the recent Chevron refinery fire or the 2009 Richmond High School gang rape, McLaughlin also knows what it takes to be a leader when times are bad. Now in her second term as mayor, she worked her way up the ranks to the highest office in Richmond, which remains the largest city in the country to be run by a Green Party mayor.

For McLaughlin, what compelled her to get involved with her city was “recognizing the injustices my community suffers.” In the male-dominated profession of politics, she says, it’s “important for women to take leadership roles, whether it’s in active office or in whatever profession of choice an individual’s pathway in life leads them. It’s always important to stand up for justice.”

Rev. Elena Kelly has blazed her own trail into politics. Ordained in three religions and a transgender woman, Kelly uses her past experience to help influence the city of Stockton.

As the first transgender woman elected in San Joaquin County, Kelly has been a member of the Democratic Central Committee and is the president of the Interfaith Council of San Joaquin County. In these roles, Kelly said, she works to help make “things better for a whole lot of people and not just transgender people.”

Dealing with Controversy

Success does not come without conflict for any politician, but the panelists shared what extra pressure they have experienced as women.

Knowing opposition would be present in one of the largest and most diverse cities in the country, Quan has learned to balance her expectations as a mayor and the prejudices she encounters as a high-ranking female politician.

When she was elected, Quan distinctly remembers colleagues saying, “She can’t do this, she’ll never be able to do that,” especially from men.

Not one to back down to pressure, Quan says she has faced the challenge by telling herself: “Believe you can do it. Don’t just settle for what it is, but say ‘Let’s try, and let’s do it.’” She added, “If I’m going to tell young people to have hope, then I have to have that hope.”

Kelly has also faced many controversies throughout her political life, and has learned to conquer negative attitudes. “I have been pressured not to run for office by people who don’t even understand what transgender is,” says Kelly. “Accepting the unacceptable is something no one has to do.”

Disregarding her critics’ cruel rhetoric, Kelly is determined not to be pigeonholed. “A stereotype for transgender woman is typically hyper-feminine,” she says. “I don’t wear high heels.”

Words of Wisdom

Becoming a powerful leader in the arena of politics might sound difficult, but the panelists have each found great success. They proudly shared their enthusiasm for a new generation of women who will stand up for what they believe in.

“You have to take that leap of faith,” says Quan. “You have to take some chances if you want to change the world or even yourself – you have to dream a little bit.”

Getting involved, Kelly says, is the best way to enact change in your community.

“One person can make a difference. You can go on to become mayor of a major city in the United States. It’s possible, you absolutely can do that,” she says. “You have to be able stand up and say this is the right thing to do, and people will listen.”

By Dan Murphy ’13

Photo by Michael Urbina

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