When Sarah Reyes was running to become only the second woman – and the first Latina – from the Central Valley to join the state Legislature in 1998, she got a rude awakening.
“I knocked on a door in Fowler and this man told me, ‘Honey, you don’t need to be running for office. You need to get married, have kids and have a nice husband,’” recalled Reyes at a Women in Politics symposium last Wednesday at Fresno City College.
The problem then, which continues two decades later, said Reyes, is that voters “didn’t see women as elected officials. They didn’t see women as having the leadership to be representative of their community.”
The 2018 mid-term election saw a wave of women, and Latinas, elected to office at the local, regional and national level. There are 36 women in the state Legislature, of which 15 are Latina.
In the House of Representatives, there are 102 women. In the Senate, there are 25 women.
State Sens. Melissa Hurtado, D-Sanger, and Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, became the first Latinas to represent the San Joaquín Valley in the state Senate.
Yet, said Fresno City Councilmember Esmeralda Soria, equity has yet to arrive for women.
“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t hold 50 percent of the seats in every level of government. So, we have a lot of work to do,” said Soria, one of three current or former elected officials who took part in the symposium.
“If we look at the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, we see no women,” said Soria, the only woman on the Fresno City Council.
It is crucial to have women on the board because the county deals with issues like children and family. “These are critical, critical issues,” she said.
“And, when we don’t have a seat at the table, those policy issues are not being discussed,” said Soria. “It’s important for us to be involved. If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
Reyes, who served three terms on the state Assembly, called herself the “dinosaur” of the panel, which included 19-year-old Esmeralda Hurtado, who was appointed to the Sanger City Council in January.
In 1998 when the courts ruled term limits were legal, Reyes’ name came up as a possible successor to then Assembly Speaker Cruz M. Bustamante. Upon picking the morning copy of The Fresno Bee to read a story where Bustamante had mentioned her and then-Fresno County Supervisor Juan Arámbula as possible replacements, Reyes called Arámbula.
“It’s too late, I already endorsed you,” Arámbula told Reyes.
“OK, this is going to be fun,” recalled Reyes. “Why should I venture into this world of politics?”
Immediately, rumors among Sacramento leaders was that she couldn’t win, that she was too liberal, or that she was too outspoken.
“It was the Democrats, not the other side of the aisle, saying this,” said Reyes.
A major problem, she said, is that women, especially Latinas, who are outspoken are immediately branded with the B-word.
Politicians like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, said Reyes, “have fire in their belly and will not take anything from anybody.”
Women need to be strong and support other women, said Reyes. Women raise children and make sure the family is doing well, she added.
“If we can lead young people, we can lead this country,” said Reyes, who vowed she will not run for public office again. “I don’t want to be limited. I want to see other women run. They bring gusto, smarts and energy.”
“Women have as much to offer. It is an experience you will never forget,” said Reyes.
Soria – who said she would be open to seeking higher office “should the opportunity present itself” – said women bring different perspectives to public office. For example, she cited the instance when she was sworn into office five years ago and a friend who had just had a baby attended the ceremony.
When it came time to change her baby’s diaper, there was no diaper-changing area in the women’s restaurant. Soria worked to make sure such stations were placed not only in the women’s restrooms but the men’s restrooms as well.
“As minor as it might be, it reminded me of the reason to have a diversity of thinking on the council,” said Soria. “These things are important to me.”
It’s not easy for women to decide to run for office, she said.
“It takes us a little longer. We even question our qualification to serve,” said Soria.
A plus for her was that she had worked for elected officials, including a stint in the Barack Obama White House. “It gave me an edge up from other persons who wanted to run,” she said.
Organizations like Hispanas Organized for Political Equality (HOPE), Emerge California, and Close the Gap have helped women run successfully for office, said Soria.
Hurtado, who took her sister Melissa’s spot on the Sanger City Council, is no stranger to politics. She was a constant presence on her sister’s successful state Senate campaign.
“I’ve seen the struggles women have gone through while campaigning,” said Hurtado. “It takes guts and it takes a lot of courage.”
Hurtado, a full-time student at Fresno City College, said women in politics “brings diversity and new policies that have never been looked at before, like quality of life and the environment.”
In order for governments to be effective, she said, “they have to be reflective of the community.”