First Women of San Francisco

Last week my husband and I flew to San Francisco, into that rarefied air that can only be California. Our first stop was San Francisco, or the polyglot that columnist Herb Caen used to call Baghdad by the Bay (back when Baghdad had a romantic aura about it). As we traveled around the city, several First Women asserted themselves into my reflections —as strong women are wont to do.

On our way to Grace Cathedral, where we are always rewarded with inspiration, we walked to the cable car CABLE CARwaiting only a few blocks from our hotel. Little did I know that inspiration would strike even before we reached the Church. We secured a seat on the cable car, relatively easy to do on a Sunday morning outside of tourist season. The iron bar that reaches down to clamp the ever-rotating cable, giving the cable car conductor control over when the car halts and lurches forward, was only a few feet from my own hands. The wooden handle was polished from years of firm grips and I could almost see Maya Angelou, the first black woman to be a San Francisco streetcar conductor. I could visualize that determined young woman gripping the wooden handle with her gloved hand, and almost certainly greeting her riders as they jumped on board.

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Later, on a bus tour of the city with my brother and sisters, who had joined us in “The City,” we passed City Hall.The guide did not comment on its grizzly history, when Dan White entered the building and assassinated gay activist and city supervisor Harvey Milk, as well as Mayor George Moscone. This tragedy elevated Dianne Feinstein to the position of Mayor—the First Woman Mayor of San Francisco. (Feinstein later became the First Woman Senator from California.)

DSC_0036 - Version 2 My siblings, my husband and I sailed out to Alcatraz, that infamous prison of book and lore. The tour of the prison, narrated on an audiotape by a former warden, was sobering, but the history of Alcatraz is more than the history of a prison. The ruins of an old fort still hold fast to the hillside and remnants of the Native American occupation of the abandoned island in 1969 still demonstrate tribal efforts to be heard and honored. Pictures of the occupation reminded me of Wilma Mankiller who visited the island frequently, worked in the San Francisco command post, and raised money for the cause of respecting treaty rights. She wrote in her biography that the people she met there had “major and enduring effects on me.” The lessons she learned during that nineteen months put her on the road to the position of First Woman chief of the Cherokee Nation.

As I flew away from “The City,” and back to my writing, I wondered how many other First Women it had produced.


Afterthought: This site is about First Women, but one statement on a display at Alcatraz caught my eye and pricked my focus on First Women for a moment. Frank Weatherman, known as AZ 1576, was the Last Man to leave Alcatraz. “Alcatraz was never no good for nobody,” he said on the occasion.

Wilma Mankiller, Chief of the Cherokee Nation




          “Gadugi, or working collectively for the common good, is an abiding attribute of the Cherokee culture.”  

             [Wilma Mankiller]



Wilma Mankiller’s life is a record of her belief in working for the collective good no matter the cost. Consider the list of her ailments:

myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disorder


kidney failure (saved by her brother’s donation of a kidney)

a head-on collision (requiring 17 operations and years of physical therapy)

pancreatic cancer (which eventually caused her death)

Now consider her achievements. Wilma Mankiller founded a community development department for the Cherokee Nation, developing rural water systems and rehabilitating houses for tribal members. Her successes led Ross Swimmer, a principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, to select her as his running mate and later she became the first woman to serve as chief of the Cherokee Nation. When she ran for re-election, she received 83 percent of the vote. During her ten years heading the second largest tribe in the United States, membership grew from 68,000 to 170,000.

Her early inspiration came from the time she spent in San Francisco. Relocated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a time she referred to this time as “my own little Trail of Tears,” she was motivated by the Indians who attempted to retake Alcatraz in the 1970’s. She visited them frequently during their 19-month occupation of the island and raised money for their cause.

She had been studying at Skyline College and San Francisco University in California but her experience with Alcatraz led her to enroll in Flaming Rainbow University in Oklahoma where she received a bachelor’s degree in social sciences. When she began working for the Cherokee Nation, “People did not quite know what to make of me,” she said. “I cheerfully worked longer hours than most anyone, and I would do whatever it took to get something done.”

When she was elected chief, her focus was on health care, education and governance. While attempting to protect Cherokee traditions and legal codes, she helped to build businesses that would generate income for the tribe and then to utilize this income to expand health care and provide job-training programs.

In 1998 President Clinton bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Wilma Mankiller. When she died in 2010, the chief of the Cherokee nation said, “We are better people and a stronger tribal nation because of her example. . .When we become disheartened, we will be inspired by remembering how Wilma proceeded undaunted through so many trials and tribulations.”


Read the national-bestselling autobiography, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People

Read excerpts from Mankiller’s writings at

Read Wilma Mankiller’s obituary at

Read her book Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women (Forewords by Louise Erdich, Vine Deloria, Jr., and Gloria Steinem)


In what ways have you worked collectively for the common good?