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Marking a Milestone

Arcata readies to seat the city's first all-woman council

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The 1974 Arcata City Council after Alex Stillman (center) was elected as the city's first woman mayor. - CITY OF ARCATA
  • City of Arcata
  • The 1974 Arcata City Council after Alex Stillman (center) was elected as the city's first woman mayor.

When Arcata voters cast their ballots to fill two open seats on the city council in the November election, they probably weren't thinking about making history — again.

Long known for being on the cutting edge of progressive politics — the college town made national headlines back in 1996 after seating the country's first Green Party majority council.

Now the city will reach another milestone next month when newly elected councilmembers Meredith Matthews and Kimberley White are officially sworn in to their terms, completing the only all-woman council since the city's incorporation in 1858 and putting Arcata among the ranks of just a handful of California cities to ever do so.

On Dec. 15, the two will join current Mayor Stacy Atkins-Salazar, Councilmember Sarah Schaefer and Councilmember Alex Stillman, who herself broke a proverbial glass ceiling by becoming Arcata's first female councilmember in 1972 before taking on the mantle of the city's first female mayor two years later.

Stillman served until 1980 then took two decades off before returning to the dais in 2006 and 2010 and again this year after winning a June special election — serving a total of 16 years, so far.

Stillman summed up the job simply: "Handle the basics well and plan for the future."

"I think our council has the heart and soul of making Arcata better through its leadership," Stillman said, noting she was a young mother thinking ahead to the world her grandchildren would inherit while making decisions back in the 1970s, and now two of hers live in town. "I am enthused to be serving with my fellow councilwomen."

To put the milestone in perspective, the first all-woman council in California was elected just 30 years ago, when the picturesque Bay Area enclave Pacifica broke the barrier in 1992.

While there's no official record on the number that has followed since then, suffice it to say the answer is not many — apparently fewer than 10 from the state's nearly 500 cities. Of those, most are smaller communities, including two others in Humboldt County, depending how you look at it: Eureka in 2014 (although Frank Jager held the largely ceremonial role of mayor) and Blue Lake — albeit briefly — in 2017.

It's an achievement not lost on Atkins-Salazar, who said she's proud to be part of putting Arcata on the short but growing list of cities to make the mark.

"The women I have been serving with are smart, ethical, collaborative and hard-working," Atkins-Salazar said." And let's not forget that we have an amazing woman, Karen Diemer, leading our city as its city manager. For as proud as I am to serve on Arcata's first all-woman council, what I find to be truly phenomenal is that with fewer than 10 cities in California's history reaching this milestone, Humboldt County has three of them."

Schaefer, who was raised in Arcata and is set to become mayor in December, agreed. The 30 year old noted that when she started looking into whether she might be the youngest woman to hold the title, it not only became clear that others had already beaten her to that record but also just how many women — including young women — have served on the city council in the 50 years since Stillman was first elected at 34.

"Arcata is such a good example in that legacy of having women in positions of power and leadership," Schaefer said. "It's wonderful and exciting."

Matthews, who along with White hedged her comments by noting the election results have not been certified yet despite their overwhelming leads, said she hadn't really thought much about the possibility of an all-woman council in the weeks leading up to the election.

"I was so focused on getting through the end of the year and really focusing on my campaign," she said. "It's just really hitting me. I get to be part of a special council, and it's not just that it's all women but the women that I get to serve with."

White expressed similar sentiments, saying the new council will be composed of "talented individuals" who "all bring something unique to the table."

"I love it," White said, adding she's ready to hit the ground running and has spent the last three years following every city council meeting in addition to serving on the Arcata Planning Commission. "The first female city council. .... This is so monumental."

While California is far from the bottom of the representation ladder, the state ranks eighth in the nation when it comes to the percentage of women elected to municipal office, according to The Center for Women in Politics at Rutgers University.

The numbers from earlier this year show 38.7 percent of the offices were held by women compared to the national average of 31.5 percent in incorporated cities with populations larger than 10,000.

Professor Christina Hsu Accomando of Cal Poly Humboldt's Critical Race, Gender and Sexuality Studies and English departments, noted there were also several notable firsts in the November election on the national level — including Maryland electing its first Black governor, Oregon and Massachusetts electing the country's first openly gay women governors and Vermont sending its first woman to Congress — but there's a bigger context to consider.

"Given the obstacles to women's full political power throughout U.S. history, an all-woman city council is meaningful, but gender alone and demographics alone do not give a complete picture," the professor said. "Those of us who work in women's studies and ethnic studies fight for the enfranchisement of all groups who have been excluded. We might celebrate milestones of representation, but we also advocate for a more complex intersectional framework that considers gender alongside race, class, sexuality and ability. Identities matter because, in a stratified society, identities and social contexts have an impact on our experiences and our ways of knowing.

"At the same time," she continued, "identity doesn't determine ideology or political commitments. You need only look to the U.S. Supreme Court to see that a justice like Amy Coney Barrett is not automatically going to support women's rights — she voted to overturn a half-century of reproductive rights in this year's Dobbs decision —and an African American justice like Clarence Thomas is not automatically going to support racial justice."

Milestones, like the one reached in Arcata, Hsu Accomando said, "make us realize how long it has taken to break through barriers."

The election also marks the end of Councilmember Brett Watson's turbulent tenure after what appears to be a distant fourth place finish in a six-candidate field following a series of troubles over the last year and a half, including an outside investigation that found he sexually harassed a city employee and abused his power as a council member. He has denied any wrongdoing.

While several of the councilmembers said they felt supported by the community during that time, they also saw the election results as a referendum on not only how they handled the situation but also their ability to do so while still tending to other city business.

"Even with all the challenges, we have managed to keep moving forward and have accomplished so much this past year," Atkins-Salazar said. "I truly believe this new council will be stronger and accomplish even more. I am looking forward to new beginnings and leaving the past where it belongs, in the past."

Speaking of the past, Stillman said a great deal has changed since she was first elected, serving with the progressive majority that included Wesley Chesbro and Dan Hauser, who both went on to serve in the state Legislature, to usher in projects that put Arcata on the map — like the city's innovative wastewater treatment facility.

"At the time, I don't think we realized how groundbreaking we were," she said.

Stillman did recall some awkward moments, especially when she first showed up at the Humboldt County Associations of Governments board meeting after being appointed as Arcata's mayor.

All the men, she said, kept looking at her like they weren't sure what they were supposed to do. So, at the second meeting, Stillman said she looked right at them and asked, "Are you worried I'm going to take off my bra and burn it?"

"They all laughed," she said, "and from then on everything was fine."

Looking forward, Stillman said she believes the city is entering a very exciting time, although some things — including the city's housing shortage — haven't changed.

"It's a time to be proud to be part of the past solutions and working on future ones," Stillman said. "Of course, it's taken a lot of hard work. Fortunately, I am not afraid of that."

Having Stillman as part of Arcata's first all-woman council makes it that much more meaningful, Atkins-Salazar said.

"Councilwoman Stillman is an Arcata legend and a force to be reckoned with," the mayor said. "I admire and respect Alex and am grateful for the opportunity to serve alongside her. After all her groundbreaking work as a woman in Arcata politics, it is truly poetic that she is part of this new piece of Arcata history."

White agreed.

"I think this was the perfect time for her to come back," she said.

Kimberly Wear (she/her) is the digital editor at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 323, or kim@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.

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