Skip to main content
san jose mural

San Jose Women's History

The trailblazing spirit runs deep here, especially when it comes to female advancement. San Jose and the greater Silicon Valley has been where the next great female leaders, innovators, and creatives call home.



Janet Gray Hayes

In 1975, Janet Gray Hayes became the mayor of San Jose, setting the stage as the first woman to be elected mayor of a large American city. Once the only woman on city council who experienced routine push-back from her male counterparts, Hayes encouraged more women to run for political office. She wanted to have their voices heard in the spirit of “women supporting women.” Following her successful mayoral bid, seven women held city council positions – making San Jose one of the few cities with female majority in the County. San Jose gained national attention and was considered the unofficial “feminist capital of the world” during this time.

(Source: “Women Supporting Women”: How San Jose Became the Feminist Capital of the World, Maggie Oys, 2019)

Irene Dalis

Irene Dalis was a San Jose native turned international opera star and founder of Opera San Jose. She showcased her talent in a wide range of roles, performing in major opera houses across the United States and Europe. Irene has been recognized for her talents with multiple awards including a Grand Prix du Disque, a Lifetime Achievement Award from Silicon Valley Arts & Business Awards and San Jose State University’s Tower Award, as well as honorary Doctor of Music degrees at SJSU and Santa Clara University. Upon retirement from performing, Irene provided her priceless knowledge and experience to develop the opera program as a Professor of Music at SJSU. Irene’s contributions lead the program to surpass production standards and cultivate the next generation of opera stars to establish Irene’s own company – Opera San Jose.

(Source: Opera San Jose)

Sarah Winchester

San Jose’s iconic architectural wonder and notable historical landmark was created by a woman. Sarah Winchester, the widow of William Wirt Winchester and heiress to a large portion of the Winchester Repeating Arms fortune, left Connecticut and landed in San Jose after the tragic death of her infant daughter followed by William’s passing from tuberculosis. She purchased an 8-room farmhouse and began to expand rapidly, only concluding after she passed in 1922. The 24-acre estate welcomes guests from around the world to marvel at Sarah’s abode and theorize about the house’s quirks. Mystery aside, Sarah Winchester proved to be woman of independence and will always be a household name in San Jose.

(Source: Winchester Mystery House)

Susan Hammer

A prominent figure in the San Jose political scene, former Mayor Susan Hammer was a long-standing advocate for diversity and arts. During her political tenure, Susan fought for low-income housing and living wages for city contractors, helped build the Martin Luther King Library, and created the Gang Prevention Task Force highlighting social issues leading to gang involvement. Susan contributed to the design and funding of the former San Jose Repertory Theatre, oversaw construction of SAP Center and launched the Mexican Heritage Plaza with former Vice Mayor Blanca Alvarado. Susan’s name is cemented in Downtown San Jose with San Jose State University’s Hammer Theatre Center, welcoming theater performances, film screenings, arts exhibits and notable speakers.

(Source: San Jose Mercury News)

Shirlie Montgomery

San Jose native Shirlie Montgomery began documenting her life at an early age, maintaining a journal and creating photo albums of her outings with family and friends. Her early interest in photography was encouraged by her parents, nurtured by an in-house darkroom built by her father. Shirlie’s professional photography career started with providing photographic memories for guests the De Anza Hotel, then lead to news “stringer” photography for the San Jose Mercury News and San Francisco Examiner and award-winning wrestling photography at the now San Jose Civic. Shirlie’s freelance work documented new businesses, social gathering and major events – contributing priceless documentation of San Jose’s history. 

(Source: History San Jose)


Women in San Jose and Silicon Valley have persevered in an area traditionally framed by the male-dominated tech industry. Embracing the “women supporting women” philosophy, leaders and organizations in San Jose continue to pave the way for future generations of world leaders.

Although there is still work to be done, San Jose has solidified its place in history where change is possible.

Learn more about San Jose women’s history and notable women in the area


Womanhood Project

The Womanhood Project is a new initiative highlighting prominent women in the area and their historic contributions through public art displays and digital media. Pieces by local women artists can be found around Downtown San Jose in store fronts and on street banners, showcasing artists, philanthropists, politicians, and change-makers.

San Jose Public Library Women’s History: Women of Silicon Valley public archives

The San Jose Public Library maintains an impressive collection of photos, documents and literature detailing San Jose and Silicon Valley’s women’s history. Learn about women like former mayors Janet Gray Hayes and Susan Hammer, Opera San Jose’s Irene Dalis, and the many organizations who paved the way for today’s leaders.


Mosaic America x San Jose Women’s Club poetry event

In partnership with the San Jose Women’s Club, Mosaic Silicon Valley presents Exploring the Multiverse: Poetry & Process in Daily Life. The poetry series welcomes poets Shikha Malaviya and Lisa Rosenberg for an interactive discussion that will connect poetry to our past, present and future

March 9 – Her Story in Verse: Women’s history through Poetry with Shikha Malaviya
April 6 – The Universal Is Personal: Leaping, Connecting, and Meaning with Lisa Rosenberg

Register for the free in-person events here.

LGBTQ Youth Space Women’s History Month highlights

Follow the LGBTQ Youth Space on Instagram as they highlight prominent women integral to the queer community.