Local women rocking the boat

Posted: February 3rd, 2017 | Featured, News | No Comments

Fundraiser for Women’s Museum honors local elected officials

By Morgan M. Hurley | Editor

Originally founded in 1995 by Mary Maschal, who opened her Golden Hill home to the public after having gathered relevant collectibles and memorabilia for over a decade, the Women’s Museum of California is now located in Liberty Station.

With its mission of “preserving the past, inspiring the future,” the museum has grown into a wealth of archives, exhibits, resources and live shows.

On Thursday, Jan. 26, the Women’s Museum held a fundraiser called “Celebrating Women in Politics,” honoring all the women who were recently elected into local offices, while unveiling a new traveling exhibit, “Rocking the Political Boat.”

(l to r) Councilmember Chris Ward presented Sen. Toni Atkins with an award from the Women’s Museum. (Photos by Melissa Jones)

The event was held at Mister A’s in the “east room,” with its dynamic views overlooking Bankers Hill and Downtown.

Rachel Laing — former San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer and deputy press secretary for Mayor Jerry Sanders who now runs her own PR and communications consultation business — emceed the fundraiser.

After a short networking social hour, Hannah Cohen, president of the Women’s Museum, opened up the event.

“We are here to celebrate the wonderful women in San Diego who are our leaders,” she said.

Thanking the board for its work, Cohen then introduced the board’s only male member, local political activist and Navy veteran Shawn VanDiver.

Cohen also introduced Diane Peabody Strow, who took over as executive director of the Women’s Museum from Ashley Gardner about six months ago.

Laing then welcomed distinguished guests in attendance, including newly minted state Sen. Toni Atkins; new Assemblymember Todd Gloria, who was still en route; Sheriff Bill Gore; Supervisor Kristin Gaspar, City Attorney Mara Elliott; new San Diego City Councilmembers Barbara Bry, Chris Ward and Georgette Gomez; and Imperial Beach Councilmember Mark West.

Laing also reminded everyone that this was a fundraiser for a “truly wonderful organization that is absolutely worthy of our support.”

Also in attendance was Atkins’ wife, Jennifer LeSar, various board members and approximately 100 total attendees.

“We are trying to foster an expectation among women that we can lead,” Laing said. “Why is it important? It is about privilege for our girls and our women. What is privilege? Being able to walk through your world knowing you will get a fair shake.”

Councilmember Ward, just six weeks on the job, presented Sen. Atkins with the Women’s Museum’s “Women in Leadership Award,” noting that it is a historic time in the city’s history.

“This year marks a first for our San Diego City Council,” Ward said. “The four officials that lead the business of the council meetings — and sit at the upper dais — are all women: the Council President, City Attorney, City Clerk and Independent Budget Analyst,” Ward said.

(l to r) Annie Hoiberg, a member of the Women’s Museum board, shares a laugh with Councilmember Georgette Gomez. (Photos by Melissa Jones)

The award honored Atkins, citing, “to commemorate your trailblazing leadership and advocacy for women throughout your public service.”

“Tonight is about taking the Women’s Museum to the next level,” Atkins said, while accepting the award. “In this day of alternative facts, it is so important to document our history. We need to focus our commitment and really think about what it means to have the resources to know our history.”

Atkins told the audience that when she was in the state Assembly, only 17 out of 80 were women; a low 22 percent.

“Mothers and women can do anything,” she continued. “When a window opens, we as women need to jump through it.”

She noted the Assembly’s surprise when she took over as Speaker of the Assembly; she was the first San Diegan, and the first lesbian, to do so.

“They didn’t see it coming and I think it was because I was a woman,” she said. “I want the world to be equal to when we don’t need to point out our allies and friends. I stand on the shoulders of people like Lucy Killea, and my friend Christine Kehoe, who told me that I had to run.”

The mention of Killea was poignant. Killea, who served 14 years in the California state legislature and is a large part of the Women’s Museum’s new traveling exhibit, died Jan. 17.

Atkins then tipped her hat to other female politicians who came before her, Dede Alpert, Sheila Kuehl — the first out legislator in California — and some of her peers, including Lorena Gonzales Fletcher and Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles, whom she called “a force of nature.”

Atkins — who earlier that afternoon had announced SB 179, called the Gender Recognition Act of 2017, co-sponsored by Sen. Scott Weiner — told the crowd that she has some exciting bills coming up and she “can’t wait” to put them forward. SB 179 would allow Californians to obtain state-issued identifications that accurately reflect their gender identity.

Laing said all of the women being honored were “underestimated.”

Gomez, who won her long-shot bid to be the councilmember representing District 9 when Marti Emerald retired, told those gathered that she was “very humbled” by her win.

“I was told not to do it because I’d just be wasting space,” she said.

A Barrio Logan native of immigrant parents, Gomez said her drive was her community.

Newly elected City Attorney Mara Elliott is the first female to hold the office. (Photos by Melissa Jones)

“I’m a brown, lesbian woman,” she said. “But people believed in me, financially and emotionally. We need a city that is reflective of what San Diego looks like.

“I’m proud to bring people to City Hall with me who don’t normally get to be there,” she said, referring to a staffer who previously worked for the ACLU. “We’re bringing a different voice.”

Mara Elliott, the city’s first female city attorney, emphasized the importance of the Women’s Museum.

“[It’s] a place where I can escape and remember why women do the things they do,” she said, before relaying a story about her mother and the challenges she faced as the owner of a drafting business.

“She wasn’t allowed to admit it was her company,” she said.

She cited her mother as an inspiration who often took her to various women’s caucuses and events as she was growing up.

“I want little girls to look at me and say, ‘I can do this,’” Elliott said. “This race swung those doors open and kids can dream again.”

Elliott said she plans to focus on immigration, hate crimes and minimum wage.

“Thank you for supporting women, it gives us encouragement to run,” she said.

Councilmember Bry started off welcoming Ward as an “honorary member” of the women’s club on the City Council.

A new traveling exhibit produced by the Women’s Museum of California focuses, in part, on the public service of the late Lucy Killea. (Photo by Melissa Jones)

Bry, who won the District 1 race as a self-described “high-tech entrepreneur and 67-year-old grandma,” said that even though she has always supported other women candidates, and was heavily involved in the minimum wage effort, she never considered running for public office herself.

But after the street in front of her office was torn up for the third time, she said she decided to throw her hat into the ring. Bry said her mother, Adelaide Bry, was also her inspiration.

“She was married twice but never changed her name,” Bry said. “She was one of the first female executives, but was paid less than the men.”

County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar, who beat incumbent Dave Roberts for the District 3 seat, recognized the “diversity in the room” when she took to the podium.

“Thank you Sen. Atkins, you certainly have been a trailblazer for someone like me,” she said.

The former Encinitas mayor — who ran as a Republican for the Board of Supervisors position, but revoked her support for Donald Trump’s candidacy during a KPBS interview in October — shared how she first got into the political realm.

“I went along with a friend to a political fundraiser for a female candidate while I was seven months pregnant,” she began. “And my friend introduced me to the candidate as a ‘future senator.’ When I corrected my friend, [the candidate said] ‘Well, what’s your excuse?’

“Those three words stuck with me,” she said.

In 2010, Gaspar decided to run for Encinitas City Council, despite the fact she had an 8-week-old infant, a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old.

As supervisor she hopes to inspire others.

“I have a limited time to work with young women,” she said. “Young people can’t become what they don’t see.”

Gloria, the former city councilmember who recently stepped into Atkins’ shoes in the state Assembly, arrived just in time to bestow his honors.

“It is very clear San Diego grows incredibly dynamic female leaders,” Gloria said. “I am very proud to say that the Women’s Museum is in my district, so let’s keep it going and continue to grow it. The message it sends is empowerment.”

The crowd was clearly inspired by all the speakers, as the Women’s Museum raised nearly $10,000 at the event. Stay tuned for more upcoming events and expect the popular annual Wine, Cheese and Chocolate Festival to take place in September.

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—Morgan M. Hurley can be reached at

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