LeBARON: Sonoma County political pioneer Helen Rudee turns 95

  • Helen Rudee in her Santa Rosa home, Friday, February 8, 2013. Rudee was the first woman on the board of supervisors. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

I suppose you could say that she's the Grande Dame of women's politics in Sonoma County. But no one who knows her would use that term to describe Helen Rudee.

Even as she approaches her 95th birthday, it's clear that she's not the Grande Dame type. If we were casting an actress to play her in a biopic, it would be Angela Lansbury, not Maggie Smith.

Helen, the first woman elected to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, didn't cut her teeth on the trappings of political power like Nancy Pelosi, the daughter of a congressman. Nor did she grow up planning to be a political activist.

She grew up on a farm in the Great Plains, five miles out of the very small town of Anamoose, North Dakota. She has a painting of Anamoose — the whole town — on the wall of her study. That's how small it was/is.

And if you doubt that she's a farm girl, just enter a cow-milking competition with her at the county fair. I did that once. She smoked me.

I interviewed Helen for a video history six years ago. When I decided to catch up on things last week, I thought it would be a short session. Two hours and 15 minutes later I left, chuckling over stories told, with enough notes to write a short book and a firm of belief that this is, indeed, a remarkable woman.

For starters, she is the "poster person" for the beginnings of women's politics in Sonoma County.

In 1976, she was the first woman elected to the Board of Supervisors. In her 12 years in office, her quiet determination and her refusal to be angered or dissuaded by opponents — or newspaper editorial writers who didn't think a woman could do the job — earned her a leadership role in this new "movement. "

Growing up in a houseful of brothers, she says, is where she learned to hold her own.

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