Janet Gray Hayes was ahead of her time on a lot of issues. Urban planning. Gay rights. Environmentalism. Work/life balance. But most of all, women in politics.
Serving as the mayor of San Jose, California, from 1975 to 1983, Ms. Hayes, who earned her A.M. at the School of Social Service Administration in 1950, was the first female mayor of a major U.S. city. Her time as mayor opened the door for many other women in her administration, and paved the way for countless other women in politics. Hayes’ two terms were a steady series of successes - she won 72 percent of the vote in her re-election - and she says to do her job, she simply ignored the sexist attitudes she often encountered.
“When I went to my first meeting of the U.S. Council of Mayors, there was a huge oval table where all the mayors sit, and another against the wall for their staff. Well, I sat down at the oval table and the man next to me turned and said, ‘Whose secretary are you, sweetie?’” Hayes recalls now with a laugh. “I just put out my hand and said, ‘I’m Janet Gray Hayes. I’m the mayor of San Jose.’”
A graduate of Indiana University, Ms. Hayes moved to Chicago in 1948 to attend SSA on a scholarship, and was interested in becoming a psychiatric social worker. While at the School, she met her husband, Kenneth Hayes, who was studying to be a physician, and for three years after her graduation, she supported them both working for the Jewish Family Evacuees, helping post-war refugees from Europe relocate to Chicago. She recalls that experience in the city and her time at SSA as building blocks for her role as an elected official.
“SSA absolutely had an impact on me,” Hayes says. “I still remember the first thing I learned in Charlotte Towle’s classroom - that you have to start where the client is when determining how to approach a problem. That translates very well into politics, too.”
Ms. Hayes and her husband moved back to his hometown of San Jose after he finished at Chicago, and while he practiced medicine, she worked to raise their four children. This indirectly introduced her to local politics. “There was an underground tunnel that kids had to use to walk to school and several of us tried to get a crossing guard to keep the kids safe. The city council promised us that they’d handle it, but then they didn’t do it. I got very angry about that,” she says.
Already a veteran of the local homeowners association and the board of directors of the local YMCA, Hayes ran for and won a seat on the city council. After a stint as vice-mayor of San Jose, she ran in 1974 for mayor. Her opponent was the city’s former policy chief, and he was endorsed by the San Jose Mercury News. “I ran as an environmentalist,” she says. “My campaign slogan was, ‘We must make San Jose better before we make it bigger.’” After a bruising battle, Hayes won by less than 1,300 votes out of more than 300,000 cast.
In office, Ms. Hayes delivered on her promise to pay attention to the city’s unchecked sprawl and consolidated the city’s borders. Despite the severe limitations caused by California’s newly passed Proposition 13, which resulted in a cap on property tax rates in the state, reducing them by an average of 57%, Ms. Hayes balanced the city’s budget. In 1979, the city was named the number-one city in America by the Brookings Institute.
During Ms. Hayes’ tenure as mayor, the city also won the unofficial title of “the feminist capital of the world,” in large part because she worked hard to help other women enter into elected office. “By the time I left office, we had a female vice-mayor and a female majority on the city council, too. We got a lot of really good women into the council,” she says.
After her second term, Ms. Hayes retired from active politics to spend more time with her family, lending advice and support to other people’s campaigns, but demurring from calls to run for higher office. Today, she and her husband still live in San Jose, traveling quite a bit to visit their kids and for tennis matches - he is an active participant in the super-senior circuit. She says she doesn’t miss the hard work of political life, although she’s proud of what she has accomplished.
“My children and I, and our volunteers, walked a lot of precincts. That’s the way you have to do it. I’d knock on someone’s door and sometimes a man would answer and say, “I’ll never vote for a woman,’ But, his wife would be behind him and say, ‘I’d like to hear what Janet Gray has to say.’ And I’d stay and tell them about myself and the campaign, and sometimes when I’d leave, he’d say ‘Well, maybe I will vote for you,’” she recalls. “That’s how things start to change.”