Karen V. Clopton is the current and first black president of the League of Women Voters of San Francisco. This year, California women are celebrating the 100th anniversary of their right to vote. Clopton is also the first black chief administrative law judge for the California Public Utilities Commission, and in 2008 was the first black woman to be appointed by the State Bar’s Board of Governors.
How did you come to be president of the League of Women Voters of San Francisco and what are your responsibilities?
As president of the league, I’m very honored to be the first African-American to be elected the sole president. I am the spokesperson for the organization. I was elected in 2007 and I ressurrected certain fundraising components including The Women Who Could be President Fundraiser, which I felt was important to bring back as it had been on hiatus for several years. This was in order to highlight the work of the league and also the absence of women in political life ... on a national level, as well as on a local level [we] have fewer women in politics now than ever before. We really need to regain political participation by women and girls. I have a tagline in my e-mail that says “Democracy is not a spectator sport” and it isn’t. It is extremely important for all of us to participate in the political system. All of our rights, especially voting rights, have been hard won, hard-fought and, as an Arican-American, I know how much work has gone before us. We must honor that by continuing to reach back and move forward.
Who or what has been a major influence in your life?
The major influences in my life have been the women in my life: My mother, my grandmother and my godmother, who were very strong women. They all worked very hard and were very involved in the community. They were volunteers and very engaged in religious and volunteer organizations. They taught me to give back to the community.
What book has had a big impact on you?
I think the most important book that has been written in the last several years is “Slavery By Another Name” by Douglas A. Blackmon. It’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning book that really reveals how slavery did not end in 1865 but really continued until the 1950s.
How are you feeling now that we’re celebrating the 100th year of women’s right to vote in California?
I’m very excited about this milestone because it is an opportunity to educate people about voter education, how important it is to vote, to register to vote and to go out and get involved in our political process. A lot of women and girls don’t know that women in California have been voting for 100 years and that the league’s origins are that deeply rooted.
What’s your biggest accomplishment in life?
My two daughters, Olivia and Julia. Julia is funny and a very compassionate person. Olivia is very smart and determined. They are both very accomplished.
What challenge have you had to overcome in your life?
I think the major challenge in America is race. As an African-American, overcoming color and [the history of] bondage is the No. 1 obstacle for all of us who are decendants of people of color. Of course, gender bias, too. I was raised by people that instilled in me that you have to work very hard and do twice as well as everyone else in order to overcome these obstacles and biases. I’m still teased at my age about the way that I dress, that I don’t wear jeans, that I’m not a casual person. I come from four generations of women who dress up when they leave the house. It’s about carrying yourself in a dignified fashion with self-respect. It doesn’t matter what you have, it’s how well you take care of yourself and how you present yourself to the world. Even though you might not have that much you might still have a lot to give to other people. It’s important to give to other people and present yourself in a positive way.
Who do you turn to in tough times?
I turn to my friends who are my family, because I don’t have a lot of nuclear family left. I also turn to my faith.
What challenges and rewards do you have in your line of work?
I think that the rewards are great; in educating everyone about the importance of participation in our democratic process. Government is only as good as we are. We get the government that we deserve. If we are not participating in the process in every possible way then we really cannot complain. On a local level ... participate in the process. If you don’t like the way things are working then do something about it. You can. Sitting at home watching television, learning about things in 30-second sound bite is not the way to become informed ... the league makes every effort to inform voters through pros and cons guides and candidate forms. One of our major challenges is to help people to diverisfy their information sources so that they can get better and more extensive information, and get to the truth.
How does San Francisco rank with women in politics compared to the U.S.?
I think that overall, including San Francisco, there are fewer women in government positions now than there were in the past. We haven’t had a woman mayor in a very long time. It would be wonderful if we elected a woman president. ... I think we need more representation. In this great city of San Francisco, we need more women who are prepared and ready to run for office...I think they are a lot of great women who should be in the forefront.
What do you do to relax?
I like to ride horses and shoot clay pidgeons.