Forget selfish personal interests: California’s first woman mayor

Edwina Cochrane
Edwina Cochrane Benner, first woman mayor of Sunnyvale

The 1920s saw the beginnings of Sunnyvale’s growth. The people of Sunnyvale wanted modern conveniences like paved roads, a municipal water and sewer system and even an especially controversial item, a civic center. In 1925, the voters of Sunnyvale approved an $86,000 bond for the new center (pictured below). The residents staged a recall campaign for four members of the council who went so far as to set out on a plan to pave the town’s sidewalks.

One of the driving forces driving growth and development in Sunnyvale was the indomitable Edwina Cochrane Benner. Edwina Cochrane was born on a vineyard near Butcher’s Corner at Wolfe and El Camino in 1885. Several years later, her family moved to a house on Charles Street.

In 1909, she married a local businessman, Carson Benner, and together they set up a home in the 300 block of South Frances Street. Once it was clear children of their own would not be in their lives, Edwina ran for and won a seat as a Sunnyvale Town Trustee in 1920. Four years later, Edwina Benner was selected mayor of Sunnyvale. Throughout her long career on the City Council, she kept her day job at the Libby Cannery and served in many volunteer leadership roles.

“The greatest honor I’ve ever been given was naming of a school after me.”
— Edwina Benner

Getting back to the sidewalk debacle, Mrs. Benner shrugged off the recall challenge in 1929 and went on to serve 28 consecutive years on the City Council. She served again as mayor from 1938 to 1940. Finally, in 1948, the voters installed a new council with a new form of city government as a charter city. Mrs. Benner had had a fabulous run as a powerhouse city leader.

Sunnyvale's first Civic Center
Sunnyvale’s first Civic Center

Still wanting to serve the public, continued her volunteer efforts as long as she possibly could. Mrs. Benner served as the Commissioner of Public Works and Property and as Commissioner for Finance and Revenue.

Carson Benner, Edwina’s husband, was one of the charter members of the Sunnyvale Volunteer Fire Department. He continued for many years to work as a barber in a shop on Murphy Street.

There must be more interest, more enthusiasm, more team work, or this election for a city hall will be lost. Get together! Organize! … The future of Sunnyvale is at stake.
– Civic Center bond promotional ad

Civic center promotional ad
Promotional ad for Sunnyvale’s first civic center

Sunnyvale can claim that Mrs. Benner has the honor of being the first woman ever elected mayor of a town in California. Technically, the town of Sawtelle, elected a woman named Mrs. Ellen French Aldrich as mayor in 1916, but was quickly absorbed into Los Angeles in 1922. That leaves Sunnyvale the first [remaining] town in California to have elected a woman mayor!

In 1954, when the Sunnyvale School District dedicated a school to her honor. Edwina was quoted as saying “The greatest honor I’ve ever been given was naming of a school after me.”

Even though both the school and the City’s first civic center were later torn down to make room for more modern buildings, Edwina Benner’s memory will live on in the new Edwina Benner Plaza, a transit-friendly affordable housing development on Sunnyvale’s north side.

I would like to thank the wonderful people at the Sunnyvale Heritage Museum for helping me find information about all 14 of my predecessors on City Council. In upcoming Women’s History Months, I hope to post more about the women leaders who have shaped our community.  (If you haven’t renewed your membership lately, why don’t you?)

4 comments

  1. I have privilege of knowing Mrs Benner niece, Beverly David. My residence at Los Altos Subacute began May 2006 to meet Beverly. She worked in Activity Dept one year, retired then has returned every Thursday am to play piano for church group stays for her sing-a-long. Her parents, longtime home in Sunnyvale, I think she has their home to rent. Beverly lives in San Jose, was teacher many years. Sent by Gloria Croy.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Gloria. I had the pleasure of meeting Beverly last week at the groundbreaking ceremony for Edwina Benner Plaza here in Sunnyvale. Truly an honor!

  2. I believe that Mrs. Benner may be tied for your title of first California mayor, if you exclude Estelle Lawton Lindsey and Ellen French Aldrich (which I fear you should not since all woman mayors should be counted since we have so few compared to men), with Jesse Elwyn Nelson of Signal Hill, CA (still a city today). All of these women deserve recognition and due diligence.

    1. Hi Kelley! I am currently an intern for Councilmember Smith, and she would like to invite you to be a guest-poster on the website. She welcomes hearing more information anyone has on the subject and we would be very interested to learn from the information you have regarding the female mayors of California!

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