Tuolumne County is teeming with strong women who play an integral role in shaping the community everyday through their leadership in government, business and nonprofit volunteerism.
Just look at the meaningful contributions made by women who were honored this week by the Center for a Non Violent Community in recognition of International Women’s Day, celebrated every year on March 8 to commemorate the women’s rights movement.
Sharon Marovich, Beetle Barbour, Anne Patel, Barbara Balen and Soroptimist International of Twain Harte were the honorees at this year’s luncheon hosted Tuesday at Black Oak Casino Resort in Tuolumne.
Marovich, of Sonora, has been a steadfast defender of the county’s heritage for decades, from her work to prevent the damming of the Clavey River to her involvement with many groups dedicated to preserving historic resources.
After marrying former Tuolumne County District Attorney Tom Marovich in 1972, she became active in groups like the Mother Lode Art Association, Tuolumne County Historical Society and Tuolumne County Museum Board of Directors.
Marovich was also elected to the Sonora City Council for a single term in the 1980s.
“A person who is active in civic engagement has to have certain passions and things they deeply believe in,” Marovich said. “I happen to believe quite deeply in preservation of Tuolumne County’s historic architectural heritage and cultural sites.”
Marovich’s contributions throughout the years have not gone unnoticed.
The 25th Assembly District, which used to include Tuolumne County, named Marovich as Woman of the Year in 1993. She was also recognized in 2003 by Voters Choice, a group formed to oppose the development of a 2,000-home subdivision in the southwest part of the county.
“I was recognized for showing true grit over the years in defending Tuolumne County’s rural heritage and historic buildings,” Marovich said.
To this day, Marovich remains as gritty as ever in her advocacy.
Marovich continues to serve as an appointed member of the Tuolumne County Historic Preservation Review Commission, chairwoman of the Tuolumne Heritage Committee, chairwoman of the Tuolumne County Democratic Central Committee, and is co-founder of a nonprofit that has published books on local history.
“I never really considered myself as a woman doing things in civic or public affairs, I considered myself a citizen of Tuolumne County who had viewpoints that I wished to communicate and never felt discriminated against because I was a woman,” Marovich said. “I just felt that I had certain things to say, and I said them.”
Barbour, of Columbia, worked for 16 years as the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency’s housing resources director before retiring last July. She worked for 15 years prior to that as an emergency dispatcher for various agencies, including the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office, U.S. Forest Service and the city of Stockton’s fire and ambulance services.
After moving to the area in 1978, Barbour said she found mentorship and support from women in the community like Linda DuTemple, Darlene Baumgarten, and Pat Cervelli, who helped establish the Center for a Non Violent Community.
Barbour, an English major in college, decided to leave dispatching in 1999 and put her degree to work for the community by writing grants. She also had a knack for speaking truth to power, going in front of the state Legislature and local elected boards to advocate for homeless issues.
“I’m just proud I was able to speak directly to those people who were elected in our county and they really listened,” Barbour said.
In 2003, Barbour played a key role in helping to set up the Central Sierra Continuum of Care that now receives about $360,000 a year in federal funding for specific projects to help the local homeless population.
Barbour said she always found acceptance and respect from the men she worked with in government throughout the years, something she credits to the women who led the charge before her.
Someday, Barbour said she hopes to see a more equal division between men and women in top roles in government.
“What a difference that would make,” Barbour said. “I think it’s important, and women will continue working toward that.”
Patel has found success in starting and growing her own business since moving to the county 16 years ago with her husband, Ron, who works as CEO of Black Oak Casino Resort.
As a former tax specialist for H&R Block in Phoenix, Patel said she had never considered opening her own firm before moving to the county.
“I was always part of a team,” she said, “but when you’re on your own, you’re on your own.”
She said she considers herself fortunate to have watched her Suzy’s Services business in Jamestown, which she opened in 2005, grow to the point where she’s had to stop taking new clients in the past couple years.
Patel has also helped raise money through an annual event at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park that benefits the Meals on Wheels program and volunteers as a member of Habitat for Humanity’s executive advisory committee.
Patel, who is also a member and past president of the Sonora Rotary Club, said she believes it’s good to recognize women’s accomplishments on International Women’s Day.
“We have so many powerful women in our community,” she said.
Balen, of Sonora, was recognized for her many years of service dedicated to environmental restoration and protecting cultural landscape resources, something she did for over 30 years while working as a district archaeologist for the Forest Service in the Stanislaus National Forest.
Among the highlights of Balen’s career was working on recovery efforts following the 1987 Stanislaus Complex Fire, the biggest wildfire the area had experienced prior to the 2013 Rim Fire.
“I had that kind of attitude that I was really going to make sure I pulled my own weight and didn’t complain,” Balen said. “I always wanted to learn and grow and be better at my job.”
One of Balen’s key issues has been advocating for the importance of Tuolumne Utilities District’s open-air ditch system, which she views as a historical centerpiece of the county.
Balen served on the TUD Board of Directors from 2002 to 2011 and was elected to a new four-year term on the board in November. She is the only woman serving on the board.
While she doesn’t believe there is a significant gender difference, Balen said she believes a woman’s voice adds value to the conversation.
“I think we look at stewardship of resources and our relationship to those a little differently,” she said. “It doesn’t really matter, what matters is being open and also unshakeable in what you know.”
Balen isn’t the only woman serving on a key governing body in the county.
District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan, of Sonora, has been the only female voice on the Tuolumne Board of Supervisors since being elected to her first term in 2012. She was re-elected last year and was selected to serve as board chairwoman for 2017.
In 2015, Brennan was named as the 5th Assembly District’s Woman of the Year for her work in helping to guide the county through the 2013 Rim Fire, drought and most recently in addressing the epidemic of dead or dying trees as a member of the State Tree Mortality Task Force.
Brennan has a background in business, ranching and managing horse recreation programs designed to help teach young women riding, communication and leadership skills.
Despite the disparity in women serving in elected roles, Brennan said she believes whether a person is qualified should be of greater significance than their gender.
“Just like I wish we lived in a color blind society, I think it’s more about qualification,” she said. “If you have a full board of women who are qualified, so be it. If you have a full board of men who are qualified, so be it.”
Connie Williams is now in the first year of her second term on the Sonora City Council, currently serving in the role of mayor.
Williams is the third woman to serve as mayor in the city’s 165-year history, after Liz Bass from 2000 to 2002 and Marlee Powell from 2002 to 2004.
“I hope that my leadership skills can help make young women want to become future leaders,” she said.
Before moving to the area in 2002, Williams climbed the corporate ladder to become director of telecommunications for Georgia-based Cox Communications, the third-largest cable television provider in the United States with annual revenues of over $10 billion.
Starting as a hairdresser in the 1970s, Williams later got a job selling telephones and worked with Cox’s former director of telecommunications. When he told her he was retiring and they had yet to select his replacement, she asserted herself as the best person for the position.
“Sometimes, we as women just don’t speak up enough,” Williams said of her advice for young women looking to break into the professional world. “In general, women are sometimes maybe afraid to speak up, because some of the ramifications when we do — whether it’s a husband, father, brother or someone you work for — but sometimes you just have to believe in yourself.”