While the feminist movement was sweeping the nation in the 1970s, Renee Simon began blazing a trail for women in Long Beach, but it wasn’t easy.
“I don’t know if I would call it hostility, but there was certainly a lack of respect for women back then,” said Simon, the second woman elected to the Long Beach City Council in 1972.
Ruth Bach, mother of author Richard Bach of Jonathan Livingston Seagull fame, was the first woman elected to the Long Beach council in 1954.
Not one to mince words, Simon talked about how difficult it was for a woman in the early ’70s to make headway on a city council and city hall dominated by an old boy’s network heavily influenced by executives at the Independent, Press-Telegram which was owned then by Ridder Publications.
“I was really unwelcome at City Hall; I was told by a friend that the city manager had said no city department head could talk to Renee Simon without another person being present. There was great apprehension about this woman being elected,” she told a rapt audience at an oral history interview conducted by Long Beach Councilwoman Suzie Price and sponsored by the Long Beach Historical Society recently.
Simon was elected from the city’s 3rd District, the same district Price represents today. Simon said that any legislation she tried to introduce herself would fail so she had to find “someone else, a man, to front for me.”
She said Tom Clark and Jim Wilson were good men, “but no one else really cared about issues and where the city was going, and the city was going downhill in a bad way.”
Price asked Simon if she was criticized for asking too many questions. “I didn’t get a chance to ask any questions,” Simon said with a laugh.
Simon did have some legislative victories, she said. One of the most important being the adoption of a five-year capital improvement budget process to plan projects throughout the city in an orderly way.
This drew loud applause from the audience. She also was able to push through her proposal to hire a staff person to help council members.
Simon was born Renee Blatt on March 25, 1928, in Brooklyn. In other interviews she has recalled experiencing antisemitism as a Jewish child growing up when World War II started in 1941. She said she faced the same type of discrimination when she ran for the Long Beach council in 1972.
After the war, she earned a bachelor of arts degree at Adelphi University in 1947 followed by a master’s degrees in science from Stanford University in 1949 and library science at UCLA in 1966. She became a chemist, but her passion was to become a writer.
In 1949 she married Harry J. Simon, an attorney, and they moved to Long Beach in 1950 where her husband started a law firm with two partners and they raised their family.
She ran into gender discrimination early on. She said she tried to get a chemist job at a Dow Chemical plant in Seal Beach in the 1960s.
“I was told, ‘We don’t hire women,’ so I left. I didn’t stamp my feet.” That’s the way it was back then. “Women were told when to cook and to take care of the children,” she said.
Progress came slowly. Price said courts finally allowed women lawyers to wear pantsuits in 1999.
“I would not have dreamed of wearing pantsuits on the city council in 1972,” said with a laugh.
Simon said she finally decided to run for public service after volunteering with the League of Women Voters and sitting in on meetings of the city’s planning commission.
“It didn’t take long to determine that someone else could do a better job of planning for the city,” she said. “Things needed to get better. I thought if I got elected, I could make a difference.”
In preparing for her campaign, Simon said she talked to a friend, Pat Russell, on how she got elected as the second woman to the Los Angeles City Council.
“She told me that, because she went by Pat, people didn’t know she was a woman and voted for her,” Simon said, drawing more laughter from the audience.
In that 1972 election, Simon defeated Jan Hall who had received the endorsement of the Press-Telegram.
How did Simon win? She said she was “relatively well known” by her work with the League of Women Voters and other organizations. She also played a key role in the creation of the sprawling El Dorado Park on the city’s eastside.
She chaired the El Dorado Park Development Committee and worked with different organizations, including PTAs, to place a tax on the ballot to develop the park which had been home to “cows and farms.” Voters approved the tax.
“Whenever I drive by that park, I am absolutely thrilled with what we were able do with that land,” she said. “Some people even wanted to build an Angels baseball stadium there. We beat them all down, and now we have a great park.”
Simon said she also was proud of the role she played in encouraging residents to get more involved in community issues.
She said she was very pleased with the public outcry when the Galaxy Towers high-rise was built on Ocean Boulevard. If the public had not spoken out, “we would have a string of Galaxy Towers all along Ocean now,” she said.
She said she applauds the increase in public engagement, but she said she is disappointed in low voter turnout in recent elections. Her advice to citizens: “Get involved with community issues or else stop complaining!”
Simon, at 90, is still deeply involved in the community. She is a member of the influential Long Beach Public Library Foundation, which has taken a major role in improving literacy and turning libraries into community centers.
She is involved with the Long Beach Arts Council and the Long Beach Symphony and International City Theater. She is former chair of the Long Beach Transit Board. And she has accomplished much with her love of writing.
She has authored books on the history of the Queen Mary, the Long Beach Transit Company, the Long Beach Water Department and the 75th anniversary of the Long Beach Symphony.
She also has just finished her latest book, “Our Own Big City,” which should be available soon to the public. The title comes from a quote by Mayor Robert Garcia when he gave a speech on how the city was undergoing a renaissance and becoming a big city.
“I’m extremely pleased with the progress of the city,” she said. “I care about Long Beach and I’m glad that, in some way, I can offer a direction for the city.”
Asked by Price what her wish was for the city’s future, Simon said, “I would hope that the city would continue to be attentive to the voice of the people. I encourage all women to get involved, and women, whether high school students or older, should think about entering public service.”
Price finished the interview by calling Simon an inspiration and thanking her for her vision. The audience responded with a standing ovation.