The state of California is home to big names in politics, like Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve as speaker of the House, and Kamala Harris, the first woman, Black American and Asian American to hold the vice presidency.
Orange County, too, has contributed to this steady rise of women entering politics. In fact, OC has elected a higher percentage of women to federal, state and city offices compared to national averages, according to a 2022 analysis.
“I think Orange County has been super lucky with their representation, especially with the women,” Sunny Mojonnier, founder of the Women in California Politics Foundation and Museum, said.
Here are 10 trailblazers, past and present, who served and are serving the sixth-largest county in the U.S.
Marian Bergeson was “one of the classiest ladies,” Mojonnier said of her friend, who died in 2016 at the age of 90. Bergeson, elected to the Assembly in 1978, was the first woman to represent Orange County in the state legislature and the county’s first female state senator. She was the first woman ever to serve in both the Assembly and Senate.
After Bergeson left office in 1995, there would not be another woman representing Orange County in the Senate until Mimi Walters in 2009, Alex Vassar, senior staff at the California State Library, said.
“She was a silent giant,” Mojonnier said. “She was somebody who could pass controversial and really well thought out, well-choreographed pieces of legislation that served the people of California, but specifically her district.”
Bergeson was dedicated to bettering public education and championed numerous bills on the topic, including an $800 million bond for the construction or improvement of public schools. After leaving office, she served as education secretary under Gov. Pete Wilson and continued to serve Orange County constituents.
Doris Allen became the first woman to serve as speaker of the Assembly in 1995.
It was a bit of a controversial election, however, for the Cypress resident. She won the speaker spot with no Republican votes except for her own. Democrats at the time picked Allen, saying she could maintain bipartisan control and would foster working relationships. But her GOP colleagues accused her of making “a deal with the devil” to get the leadership post.
She only spent 102 days in the role, resigning after facing a recall effort. But despite her embattled reign as speaker, Mojonnier said Allen was a leader in her own right.
“There was a learning curve when she was elected,” Mojonnier said. “Allen tried to find her strong suits.”
Dora Hill became the first woman to serve as a mayor of any Orange County city when she was elected to lead Newport Beach in 1954. She won the race, which she entered just 10 minutes before the deadline, in a landslide.
At the time, Hill was the only female mayor in the state in her first year of service, according to a 1969 interview.
As mayor, Hill led efforts to reform Newport Beach, replacing a number of city officials and asking for a salary survey to ensure city employees’ pay was up to par. She served for four years, surviving a recall.
Young Kim and Michelle Steel
In 2020, Orange County elected two Republican women to Congress, sending to Washington D.C., two of the three first Korean American women ever elected to Congress. The elections of Reps. Young Kim of Anaheim Hills and Michelle Steel of Seal Beach also changed Orange County’s male-majority congressional delegation to a female-majority.
“It’s really exciting and humbling to be able to serve my community and be one of the first Korean American women to serve in Congress,” Kim said. “I feel the weight on my shoulders to make sure I do a good job here to deliver results for my district and pave the way for the others.”
And Steel says her story is an example of achieving the “American dream” through hard work and dedication, no matter their background.
“My parents fled communism in North Korea to find a better life, and just one generation later, I am living my American dream,” Steel said. “I am honored to serve the incredible people of Southern California in Congress, and I hope that my story can encourage further generations that all things are possible because of the liberty found in the United States.”
Orange County sent a total of eight women to Sacramento after the 2022 midterm elections, including Kate Sanchez, who at 33 is the youngest Orange County woman ever to serve in the state legislature.
Sanchez said that fact is a “call to action.”
“My constituents are ready for a fresh voice who will solve problems and work tirelessly for the district,” Sanchez said. “As we close in on the first 100 days of session, my colleagues and I have introduced policies that will make our communities more safe, make California more affordable, and advocate for our hardworking small business owners.”
Janet Nguyen has a long list of “firsts” behind her name.
Not only is she the first Vietnamese American state legislator in the U.S. and was the first — and youngest — woman to represent the 1st district on the Orange County Board of Supervisors, according to her office, she’s currently the highest-ranking Vietnamese American elected official in California as the Senate Minority Caucus Chair.
“I could never have dreamt of being in the Senate, and now my colleagues would choose me to lead the caucus,” Nguyen said earlier this year. “It’s truly an honor, and I pledge to them and to Californians to use this decision to make sure we work together for a more affordable and safer state, so we all have the opportunity like my family did to achieve the American dream.”
Carol Kawamani, Farrah Khan and Tara Campbell
Women have made waves at the local level, too.
Carol Kawanami of Villa Park, who died in November 2017, paved the way for local Asian American legislators when she was elected mayor in April 1980, becoming the first Japanese American woman to preside over a mainland city.
In 2018, Farrah Khan was elected to Irvine’s council, becoming the first woman of color and the first Muslim on the dais. And then in 2020, she became the first Muslim woman to serve as mayor of a large city in the U.S.
The designation of being the first, Khan said, has given her the opportunity “to be the voice of so many and initiate ways to celebrate our diverse community.”
History was made in 2019 when Tara Campbell of Yorba Linda became the youngest female mayor in state history at the age of 25. Two years prior, Campbell, at 23, became the youngest person to be elected to the City Council.
“I am proud to be a woman in elected office, and I hope that my election will help spur other women to put themselves out there to run,” Campbell said then.
Staff writer Yusra Farzan contributed to this report.
Source: Orange County Register
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