It was 1976 and the board of supervisors in Chesterfield County, Virginia, was a male refuge. Joan Girone changed that.
Shattering the glass ceiling by becoming the first woman elected to the board, she became a role model and trailblazer at the age of 48 for many women who grew up in Chesterfield and were just beginning to find their way. They were watching, listening, and observing even though they may not have realize it at the time. All these years later, I see Mrs. Girone’s fingerprints on many of my Republican beliefs.
She was progressive for the GOP, especially at that time, and they were fortunate she carried their banner in her groundbreaking journey to open doors for women. At the time, Chesterfield was just beginning to grow and expand with newcomers relocating as businesses moved into the area. The result was the beginning of change in county leadership.
From reporter Bridget Balch with the Richmond Times-Dispatch:
“It set a new vision for Chesterfield County,” said former state Sen. John Watkins, a friend and political ally of Mrs. Girone’s. “Before, it was easy to say that many county governments were good old boys running local government, and she proved that that wasn’t necessarily the way it was going to work from then on.”
She went on to serve three terms before retiring from the board in 1987. During that time she was vice chairman from 1976 through 1980.
Why she didn’t move further up the political ladder is a bit of a surprise. When she ran as an Independent for Virginia state senate in the 1980s, challenging the incumbent Republican senator and bucking the local Republican hierarchy, she was shunned by some within the party and her political career never regained momentum. From the RTD:
Though a strident Republican, when Mrs. Girone ran for state senate in 1987, she challenged a Republican incumbent, state Sen. Robert Russell, as an independent. She said that the local party’s nomination process was rigged against her, and her candidacy exposed a rift in the local party. She also split with the Republican leadership, saying they were too right-wing for her more mainstream approach to politics.
Able to see the political winds of change seemingly before the GOP itself, Mrs. Girone was asked in 2012 about the shifts when county voters did not turn out as strongly in the once reliably red Chesterfield:
“I don’t think the Republican Party is going to survive much longer if they keep on this far-right track, which is endorsed by the tea party,” said Joan Girone, who in 1975 as a Republican became the first woman elected to the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors. “It’s a rigid adherence to certain things and an unwillingness to compromise at all.”
Girone, now an independent, described the Republican Party of today as “exclusive” and a group that is not recognizing the growth of minority groups in Chesterfield.
She considered it an example of “politics at its finest” when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, and Obama, a Democrat, recently worked together in the wake of massive storm damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.
“That’s what the Republicans seem to have forgotten — you are sent there to work solutions for the common good of all the people,” Girone said. “You can keep your own philosophy … but you have to compromise and give and take to reach a goal of what is best for all of the people.” [emphasis added]
As a public servant, she got it, listening and working with her constituents, holding “First Monday” events to listen to their concerns, and active in the community before, during, and long after her time on the board. She was instrumental in the change that resulted in the school board being elected by voters instead of appointed by supervisors.
In 2015 she was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award from Chesterfield County.
Earlier this week Joan Girone passed away at the age of 91, six months after the loss of her husband Joe. She left a legacy in the county but, perhaps more importantly, she left a legacy for unknown numbers of women who learned leadership, community involvement, constituent dedication, and a never-give-up attitude from this pioneer in the Richmond area women’s movement.
Mrs. Girone’s life will be celebrated this afternoon, Thursday, April 18, 2019, at 2:00 at Bon Air Methodist Church.
For more about Joan Girone:
-Richmond Times-Dispatch: Joan Girone, first woman elected to Chesterfield Board of Supervisors, dies at 91
-Richmond Times-Dispatch: Election shows distinct shifts in Chesterfield voting habits