These days, women run for every level of political office, from local to national races. But in the 1970s, the public was still getting used to female candidates. Historian Alicia Barber takes us behind the scenes of one Nevada woman’s political campaign in this episode of “Time & Place.”
The social movements that swept across America in the 1960s opened the doors for many women and minorities to enter into public and political life in ways they hadn’t before. In rising numbers, they set their sights on state offices, where they could sink their teeth into shaping laws and policy.
Jean Ford was just finishing a two-year term as the president of Nevada’s League of Women Voters in 1972, when she decided to run for the Nevada State Assembly. As she began to campaign throughout her district, in Clark County, she realized very quickly that when it came to female candidates, voters were concerned with much more than their political views, as she explained in an interview in 1997.
"The way we dressed, the way we talked, the tone of our voice—we realized all of that had an impact," Ford said.
Ford would often swap stories from the campaign trail with Sue Wagner, who started her own campaign for the State Assembly in 1974 and went on to become the first woman to be elected lieutenant governor of Nevada.
"I remember Sue Wagner talking about when she would go door-to-door, people would say, "And who's going to take care of your children?" Ford said. "I had some of that, too, which I don't think the men ever get asked."
Reassuring voters that her family wouldn’t suffer from her political service became a critical part of Ford’s campaign. She worked closely with an advertising professional named Bob Brown, who helped her put together a brochure and other campaign materials.
"One of the things that we felt we needed to portray was that I had a family, and so a family photo seemed to be appropriate," Ford said. "The photo would imply that my family supported what I was doing. And so having my husband in the picture smiling with smiling daughters and a dog that seemed friendly was all part of the game of presenting me as an electable candidate."
Jean Ford won that election and went on to serve for two terms in the State Assembly and one in the State Senate. After that, she taught women’s Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, ran her own tourism business, and co-founded the Nevada Women’s History Project.
In 2017, women made up nearly 40% of the Nevada state legislature, one of the highest percentages of women in any state legislature across the country. And that’s definitely something to smile about.
Historian Alicia Barber is the editor of the website and smart phone app Reno Historical. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.