The Women’s Democratic Club of Clark County meets on the second Thursday of the month at Main Street Station.
The faces of the membership have changed over the years, but the club’s mission has remained consistent since its charter in 1955: to promote party membership and activism at every level. Drop by for lunch some time and you’re bound to see women who walked door-to-door as “Gals for Grant” Sawyer in ’66 sitting next to up-and-coming legislators who weren’t yet born back then. Some marched for civil rights and are still marching — albeit with a little assistance — for LGBTQ rights and immigrant respect.
If Nevada is indeed turning blue, consider these club members the truest blue.
Joining that intrepid gathering for lunch never ceases to remind me of my late mother, Jan Smith, a fierce partisan who spent most of her adult life in the political trenches. For many years she was known for her red hair (think Lucille Ball in “The Lucy Show”), her sailor’s vocabulary, and her undying loyalty to the Democrats. She wasn’t a political poker player; she went all-in on every hand.
Although she sat as a Justice of the Peace for more than a decade in Jean, served as Gov. Mike O’Callaghan’s administrative assistant in Clark County during his first term and worked in the courts and Clark County District Attorney’s office a generation ago, my mother was like most other women who entered politics. She spent most of her political life as an unpaid volunteer promoting the careers of men.
Some proved worthy of all the sweat and tears; others fell under the spell of political influence. But they all benefited from an army of women who marched toward a future that most hoped and prayed would be more equitable to women and minorities.
My mother died in 2005, disappointed in her party. Although many advances had been made, she believed the Democrats still hadn’t hadn’t done enough to keep the promise of fairness. When it came to grooming and recruiting candidates, equality of opportunity was still hoarded by a small collection of powerful men.
Today I know Jan Smith is smiling. She’s joined by an endless parade of sisters in a struggle for equal rights. They’re cheering at the reality that the Silver State — the same backward Nevada that once called Walter Baring a Democrat — is about to gavel into session a Legislature led by women and minorities. I can almost hear my mother saying, “Hallelujah, and it’s about damn time.”
Nevada’s female-majority Legislature is unique in American history. Think about it for a moment. I bet every woman (and a lot of men) who have devoted time and effort to the cause of social justice are still having trouble believing it. It’s a new chapter, and women will be writing it.
It’s heartening that state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, who survived a vicious and empty-headed Republican recall attempt, will be there to celebrate it. The retired school teacher and principal has spent much of her career fighting for improvements in public education and the state’s historically sorry social service network.
The list of women who have made big contributions to Nevada politics is too long to list here — and is not limited to Democrats. Republicans have their own hard-working women’s club and some success stories to tell. As illustrated by the incumbency of Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, the only Republican to hold a constitutional office after the dust of campaign 2018 settled, GOP women have a lot to be proud of, too.
Nevada Democrats are making good on the promise of equal opportunity, which some will try to write off more as smart politics than changing times. But women and minorities are rising in the party because their presence in public positions works on Election Day. If you want to help ensure participation in the process, open it to those whose votes you hope to win. It’s a lesson Republicans, who still rely on suppression as a campaign strategy, are slow to learn.
Those who want to reduce this sea change to a perfect political storm in a year which saw the rise of the #MeToo movement are kidding themselves. Nevada has two female U.S. senators and increasing numbers throughout the judiciary. This isn’t an historical anomaly. It’s the future arriving in real time. And we should all be proud.
Women in the majority and minorities in positions of leadership…? My mother would be celebrating. She’d finally rest knowing that her Democratic Party was at last reaching its potential.
Then, in her ever-understated manner, she’d add, “What the hell took you so long?”
John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith