Honoring the Women of San Jose

by Mike Paradela

In honor of International Women’s Day, we compiled a list of women who have moved San Jose’s political, economic, and cultural life in a progressive direction. Their contributions to humanity as a whole and San Jose in particular should be recognized and honored. Without these women, San Jose would not be where it is today. This is not a definitive list.

Sarah Knox-Goodrich

She was a suffragist who used her class privilege to fight for the democratic rights of women. She argued that women should not be taxed if they cannot vote, invoking the same sentiment as the American Revolution. She was friends with and hosted Susan B. Anthony. She participated in the California Constitutional Amendment Campaign. Due to her efforts, California would eventually grant women suffrage in 1911, becoming the 6th state to do so.

Sarah Overton

She was a Black suffrage and civil rights activist. She was the Vice President of the Suffrage Amendment League, an interracial organization. She also campaigned to integrate Black and white children in public schools during the era of “separate but equal.” She was the President of the Victoria Earle Matthews (Mothers) Club, which helped the victims of sexual assault. Her contributions pushed San Jose in a progressive direction. 

Helene Powell

She was a Black union leader who was born in San Jose. She moved to San Francisco and became an active member of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, Local 6. Then, she moved to Los Angeles and began to organize African American and Mexican American women who worked as aircraft workers. She concerned herself with the war efforts of World War II, gender discrimination, rent control, and housing reform. 

Caroline Decker

Caroline Decker was born in Georgia and moved to San Jose in the 1930s. She was a member of the Young Communist League USA and the Communist Party of the United States. She organized the cannery workers in San Jose alongside her comrades Elizabeth Nicolas and Dorothy Healey and together they began unionization efforts. Their efforts culminated in a strike of several thousand workers demanding wage increases in 1931. Although the strike failed, Decker and her comrades’ efforts strengthened the labor movement and led to unionization efforts during World War II.

Lisa Kalvelage

Lisa Kalvelage was born in Nuremberg, Germany and directly experienced the Holocaust. She managed to escape and eventually found her way to San Jose. Learning the lessons of genocide, she became a committed peace activist. Kalvelage along with Joyce McLean, Beverly Farquhar, and Aileen Hutchinson would become the “Napalm Ladies” as they disrupted the flow of napalm. They learned that Alviso, San Jose transported the weaponry to Vietnam and decided they needed to stop it. They dressed in their Sunday best and prevented its transportation. Their arrest made national headlines. To honor her, the folk singer Pete Seeger wrote a song named “My Name is Lisa Kalvelage.”

Sofia Mendoza

She was a renowned Chicana activist. She established her leadership as she encouraged students at Roosevelt Junior High School, an institution where her children attended, to walk out and protest racial discrimination. Mendoza helped students realize that schools are funded based on their attendance and if they walked out, they could fight back against racist policies. The Roosevelt Junior High School came before the wave of Chicano student protests in the 1970s. Additionally, Mendoza fought for better housing conditions and organized with the Community Action Patrol in order to monitor police brutality in San Jose.

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