Senator Jean Ford fades to immortality


From the 8-30-98 Daily Sparks, Nev., Tribune (Edited in February, 2002)

OLD FRIENDS (2-27-98) — Former State Senator Jean Ford (D-Las Vegas) shares a laugh with her former colleague, State Sen. Joe Neal (D-North Las Vegas). Both were honored at the annual Assembly of Advisory Boards luncheon of the Nevada Dept. of Museums, Library and Arts at the Sands Regency Hotel-Casino in Reno. Ms. Ford succumbed to cancer on August 26. Sen. Neal lost his wife of 32 years to cancer last November.

Maude, dear Maude, you had a real problem in politics: You were rather lovely.

Former State Sen. Jean Ford (D-Las Vegas), died in Carson City at 68 last Wednesday after a celebrated bout with cancer.

I had the honor of breaking bread with her and Sen. Joe Neal (D-North Las Vegas) at a Reno luncheon earlier this year. She was as vivacious, delightful and youthful as ever.

Back in her legislative days two decades ago, Sen. Ford was nicknamed Maude because she resembled Bea Arthur's character in the "All in the Family" spinoff TV series of the same name.

Life imitates art. Recent press accounts about Jean Ford's career related her difficulties in trying to succeed in a male-dominated world.

Such a place is the Nevada State Legislature. Worse, the ambiance Jean Ford entered as a Republican freshman in 1973 was basically that of a boys' locker room, the only upgrade being that the boys were usually dressed.

Not much has changed since. A few recent studies have shed light on such matters. Especially relevant are those which show that girls excel in gender-segregated schools where societally-imposed sexual tensions have been largely removed. (Alas, such environments have been ruled illegal.)

In the 1971 Nevada legislative session, the U.S. Supreme Court's "one man-one vote" (pardon the expression) decision forced the creation of voting districts based on population. More women started winning elections.

The 1970's saw the ascension of three immortals, all of whom would fall to cancer, a disease often caused by exposure to toxics. The Nevada legislature is quite a poisonous environment.

Mary Gojack (D-Reno) was elected in 1972 from a heavily Republican southwest Reno district. She beat incumbent GOP Assemblyman R.W. "Corky" Lingenfelter with the help of a gimmick: a call for breathalyzer tests on lawmakers before entering the legislative floor.

It topped all national news stories out of Nevada that year. Having been through a few legislative sessions since, I can say that Mary turned out to be quite right.

She was seated next to Jean Ford. The good ole boys had reverted to high school, apparently remembering that girls mostly stood on one side of the gym at a dance or assembly, with boys congregating at the other.

They were joined four years later by Nancy Gomes (D-Reno), whose northwest area seat is now held by Vivian Freeman (D).

Gomes died of cancer after serving one term. Gojack succumbed to the same dreaded disease about a decade later. They all suffered for having been born female.

Back then, some state departments and major cities assembled lobbying teams ornamented by attractive young females, the better to schmooze the old goats making the decisions.

Gojack often saw her legislative proposals frustrated. On more than one occasion, I've heard of male lawmakers telling their cronies "there's only one thing wrong with this bill," then pointing to Gojack's name as sponsor.

What was so wrong with Mary, Nancy and Jean?
They were not battle axes.

Regular readers have often heard me decry the battle ax syndrome in politics. Simply put, in order to prove that she's man enough for the job, a female officeholder must take cruel, often nonsensical stands.

Better that than stand accused of softness or, worse, of being stereotypically "hysterical," a term with the same word root as "hysterectomy." Pollsters have always warned that a female candidate is in deep trouble if the public perceives her as "strident" or "shrill."

Politics still places a premium on battleaxes in office. The tomboyish Janet Reno remains very popular as attorney general of the United States in large measure because she's big and imposing. This is nothing new in government. King Saul of Israel became leader of the tribe because he "stood head and shoulders above all other men."

Alas, cosmetics still count. Some women candidates this year are going all out to prove they can quick-draw the death penalty faster than any guy.

Jean Ford, Mary Gojack and Nancy Gomes were feminine feminists at a time when only first-wave female politicos were acceptable. Tough-looking older women in blocky business suits were taken more seriously by the good old boys because, knowingly or not, they were reducing sexuality in the equation. Just like the education researchers found out much later.

Charlie Brown will forever remain indifferent to the athletically superior Peppermint Patty.

Trailblazing second-wave women politicians who endured the indignities of first-wave prejudice did us all a great service.

When women reach parity with men and minorities achieve proportional representation in the halls of power, we will be better served as a nation.

That day remains far off. Successful female politicians remain few. The most successful often prove the weakest in office. The good ole boys do not mind letting the girls have one or two tokens as long as they are non-threatening.

The Nevada State Legislature remains a man's world of greed and corruption. Away from their communities, many lawmakers still behave like schoolboys at summer camp.

White men remain overwhelmingly in the majority, reflecting their status and power in the society at large.

But first wave thinking is fading. We have already witnessed the emergence of a political Xena, Warrior Princess. Someone who can be brilliant, effective, feminine and tough, popular despite what formerly would have been a debilitating mix.

Her name is Hillary Rodham Clinton.

She owes Mary, Nancy and Jean a prayer of thanks for paving the way. As do we all.


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© 1998, 2002 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 33-year Nevadan, a member Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of and He hosts Deciding Factors on several Nevada television stations. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.)Tribune since 1988.

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