Helen Rudee, the former North Dakota farm girl who became the first woman elected to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in 1976, rising in local politics despite those who saw such seats as reserved for men, died Wednesday, seven months after the ladies’ tea that helped mark her 100th birthday.
Rudee had cut her political teeth as a doctor’s wife in the PTA and then in an elected seat on the Santa Rosa school board when she tuned out the naysayers and declared herself a candidate for the county office. Since the founding of Sonoma County following the Gold Rush, there’d never been a woman on the Board of Supervisors.
Rudee often recalled that she’d never had a problem working with males as an equal — five boys had been born to her family before she arrived in Anamoose, North Dakota, on Feb. 21, 1918.
“I grew up with brothers,” she once said, “and I know how to kick!”
She won the 3rd District supervisorial race in 1976 and served three four-year terms in the seat representing the central portion of the county. An admitted “slow decision-maker,” she set a deliberative, analytical tone on the board by politely and persistently asking questions, then staking her position.
“She was wise and patient, and she had a heart and a mind,” said former supervisor Brian Kahn, who recalled that when he joined the board in 1976 through a gubernatorial appointment he was 26, opinionated and prone to thinking he knew more than he did. Rudee was more than twice his age when they first sat together as county supervisors in ‘77.
“She helped me do my job,” said Kahn. As a supervisor, Rudee kept an open mind while inviting debate, investigation and analysis.
“She was willing to have her initial view challenged, probed, explored,” Kahn said.
Rudee, who started out as a Republican but switched to the Democratic Party, did not set out to become a female county supervisor, just a supervisor. But by her example and later, her advocacy, she motivated other women to pursue their ambitions and dreams.
“I imagine that Helen was a role model for many,” said friend Jeannie Schulz, a leading Sonoma County philanthropist and the widow of “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles Schulz.
Rudee was “a woman engaged in her community and willing to give her time and energy to the local political scene,” Schulz said. And beyond that, as “a role model for all of us.”
In recent years, Rudee earned praise for building the foundation of the current Board of Supervisors, the first ever in Sonoma County on which women make up the majority.
“She was such a strong supporter of women’s rights and women entering the workforce, and certainly the political arena,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents Sonoma Valley and the east county.
“Throughout my career, Helen has been an inspiration to me and many other women who are in politics and other male-dominated fields,” Lynn Woolsey, the former North Coast congresswoman, said on the House floor in a tribute to Rudee’s 86th birthday in 2004.
“She is a trailblazer who has made it better for all women,” Woolsey told the House.