She never held office, but she helped countless women politicians get their start

Mary Stanley, a longtime proponent for women in politics, died in Fresno on Nov. 3, just a few days short of a historic election that saw over 100 women elected to the House of Representatives. She was 91.
Mary Stanley, a longtime proponent for women in politics, died in Fresno on Nov. 3, just a few days short of a historic election that saw over 100 women elected to the House of Representatives. She was 91. Special to The Bee

In an autobiography for Veteran Feminists of America, Mary Stanley summarized her vision for the future:

“One day we will have a woman president and there will be as many women in Congress as men. Until that time our work goes on. And, as long as I have the energy I will be doing as much as I can to make it happen.”

Stanley died in Fresno on Nov. 3, just a few days short of a historic election that saw over 100 women elected to the House of Representatives. She was 91.

Stanley spent her life working to get dozens of female candidates elected. She pushed, prodded and fundraised for women who would become political all-stars at a time when it was almost unheard of for a woman to seek office.

Mary Stanley in an undated photo.

“Mary deeply understood that nothing is more wholesome than the increased leadership and participation of women in politics, and she committed her full life and spirit to bringing more women into the halls of power,” Rep. Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “She helped elect countless powerful women to the U.S. Congress, forever changing the face of our institution.”

Her belief in the strength of women to lead came from personal experiences she held closely to her, according to grandson Jerry Stanley.

She fled an abusive first marriage and raised her three children on her own while working as a waitress in Oregon. She met and married Jay Stanley in 1953, moving with him to Fresno in 1961 to start a frozen food business. Though she later regretted not staying in school, she believed that her life experience helped her connect with the average woman voter.

She got her first taste for advocacy in 1971 when she joined the National Women’s Political Caucus and led the Mothers March of the 1971 Fresno County March of Dimes, which collected funds for polio victims. She sought office once for herself on the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, but found that she was most effective as a political fundraiser and coach.

Backing Karen Humphrey

Before there were political action committees, there was Stanley, following female candidates to conventions with stacks of T-shirts and buttons to raise money for their campaigns. She wrote one of the first checks to Karen Humphrey’s campaign for Fresno City Council, and donated her extra spending money to other promising up-and-comers like Pelosi and Donna Brazile.

Humphrey said that she had intended to enter the political world as a behind-the-scenes staffer or an aide to an elected official until Stanley convinced her to run for office herself. In 1988, she was elected Fresno’s first woman mayor.

“She didn’t like to take no for an answer, but also meant it when she said she would help,” Humphrey said. “She understood that women candidates were going to need support, so she devoted herself to creating a structure that could help them.”

Stanley’s tireless work for women eventually earned her a spot on the California Commission on the Status of Women, which she referred to as the best part of her long life. She was the only businesswoman and only Central Valley appointee on the commission.

Stanley’s determination to see women in the highest offices led to rifts with her beloved Republican party twice: first, when she resigned from the state executive committee over Ronald Reagan’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and second, when Stanley publicly endorsed Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro in 1984.

Stanley felt for years that she didn’t have to choose between being a feminist and being a Republican. She had supported women candidates regardless of their party preference, Humphrey said, and didn’t leave the party so much as it left her. She stepped down from her post on the GOP State Central Committee in 1984.

“After 20 years, I can no longer serve as a leader in a party that has turned its back on its history, its tradition and its women,” she said. “This… is my symbol of courage and demonstrates that Republican women will not be threatened or intimidated or silenced.”

One final threshold

Stanley lived to see women storm the halls of power, and supported NWPC-backed candidates with her grassroots fundraising all the way up until the 2016 elections. She was holding on to see one final blow to the glass ceiling – Hillary Clinton taking the presidency. But when it didn’t happen, Stanley didn’t despair.

“She always managed to get things done in her dogged, bulldog way,” Jerry Stanley said. “She was strong and stubborn to the very end – the only thing I ever convinced her to do was come home with me.”

Humphrey said she believes Stanley would have been overjoyed to see the results of the Nov. 6 election that swept into office not only more women, but women of color, in particular.

“I know Mary is celebrating somewhere,” Humphrey said. “And I know, too, that she would not want flowers in her memory. She’d prefer for you to write a check to caucus-backed candidates or the caucus itself.”

Mary Stanley

Born: Oct. 7, 1927

Died: Nov. 3, 2018

Residence: Fresno

Occupation: Businesswoman

Survivors: Grandson Jerry Stanley, granddaughter Stephanie Blankenship, great-grandsons Justin, Wes, Aidan, Nigel and Zane

Celebration of Life: 10 a.m. Nov. 30 at Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno, 2672 E. Alluvial Ave.