It was in the early morning hours of Monday, December 1, 1975, in a hazy room at Charlie Taft’s Highland Towers penthouse, when Bobbie Sterne was selected as the first female mayor of Cincinnati by a portion of her fellow councilmembers, making her one of the first female mayors of any major American city. It was a boon for women’s rights and equality, no doubt—a movement that has finally pushed its way to the forefront of our current political discourse—but even then, Sterne’s historic victory wasn’t exactly marked by the triumphant series of events you might expect for such an occasion. Not that Sterne would have wanted it that way.
Back then, Cincinnati mayors weren’t elected directly, and that wouldn’t change until the 2001 election. Traditionally, the top vote-getter for city council became mayor, except for the period from 1971 to 1987, when the majority party nominated one of its members.
In addition to the local Republican and Democratic parties, the Charter Committee was and remains a legitimate third party in Cincinnati politics. Founded in 1924, it developed into a progressive and largely volunteer-run faction that generally aligned with Democrats on local issues, but avoided special interest groups or sway from national parties on matters that had no impact on the city. But after more than a decade of Republicans controlling city council, the Charterites and the Democrats formed the Charter-Democratic Coalition in 1969 in hopes of overturning a Republican stronghold that, to their minds, no longer represented the changing electorate. Just a couple of years later, they got their wish, ending a 14-year Republican rule over city government. Starting with the 1971 election, the coalition devised a pact to split the mayoral term evenly among two of its councilmembers, one from each party; the same was true in 1975.
On that December morning in Highland Towers, the Democrats selected Jim Luken for their portion of the mayoral term. The Charterites, however, were short on options. The 78-year-old Taft had served as mayor from 1955 to 1957, but wasn’t particularly keen on reprising the role, according to David Mann, a newly elected councilmember at the time. So it was Sterne who ultimately stepped forward and earned the nomination, marking a significant and trailblazing moment in our city’s and country’s history. Though for her, she was merely continuing the same work she’d been doing for the past 28 years.
Click through our gallery to see photographs of Sterne through the years:
“Women! We represent over half of the city’s population, yet there is no woman on council. Vote for Bobbie Sterne, Charter-Democratic Coalition.” Her campaign ads in 1971, the first year she won, said it all. “It’s been 10 years since we’ve had a woman’s viewpoint on City Council, Vote for Bobbie Sterne, Charter-Democrat Coalition. She’s experienced—She’s qualified—She cares.”
Sterne ran in 1969 and lost, but she had a feeling her second attempt would be different. “I came home one day and said to my dad, ‘Mom’s going to win,’” remembers Lynn Sterne Bush, the older of Sterne’s two daughters, who worked on her mother’s campaign that year. “She and I could just feel it.”
Elected office wasn’t necessarily where Sterne pictured her life taking her, but running for council was hardly her entry into civic duty. “She was politically active from a very young age through the Charter Committee,” says former mayor and city councilwoman Roxanne Qualls, who volunteered on Sterne’s campaigns in the 1970s. “She was also very involved in public health and many issues that were important to the quality of life in the city.”
And it started much earlier than that. Born Lavergne Mary Lynn on November 27, 1919, in Moran, a rural village in Northeast Ohio, she was “meant to be a boy,” or so she lightheartedly told anyone who asked why people called her “Bobbie,” which they had done for as long as she could remember. “[Her parents] always taught her she could do anything a boy or man could do,” says Lynn.
What Sterne didn’t often share with people, her daughters included, were the trying times her family experienced during her childhood, which coincided with the Great Depression. “My mom was a glass-half-full person,” says Lynn. “I didn’t hear about hers having been chosen as the poorest family in their town one year and getting the Thanksgiving or Christmas food [donations] until I was in my 40s. I’m sure it was humiliating to her.”
Sterne’s family lived with no running water in a house attached to a general store they operated. Even in the midst of personal financial struggles, her father was always willing to help those in town through a tough time. If a family couldn’t afford something, her father would let them purchase goods on credit. “Her parents were major role models for her in how you live in a way that is respectful and caring of other people,” Lynn says.
Sterne studied to become a registered nurse before setting her sights on the Navy, then opted for the Army instead when she learned they’d be the first to reach the front lines of battle. Assigned to Cincinnati’s 25th General Hospital division as a lieutenant of the Army Nurse Corps, her first stop was Ft. Knox, Kentucky, where she met her future husband, Eugene, an Army doctor.
She was stationed across Europe during World War II, nursing ailing and injured soldiers in England and France. She worked in field hospitals in Liège, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge, tending to gravely injured servicemen amid near-constant buzz bombings. “I realized later all of that inner strength [she had], all of that was her WWII experience,” says Maureen Babbitt, a former political aide. “She had looked in soldiers’ eyes and told them they were going to live, and she knew they weren’t going to.”
She and Eugene married after the war and settled in Cincinnati in 1945. Sterne transitioned to life as the homemaker spouse of an affluent, distinguished VA Hospital physician. The couple had two daughters, Lynn and Cindy, and Sterne led their Girl Scout troops and presided over North Avondale’s PTA (so effectively they asked her back years after her daughters were grown; she humbly declined). She was highly dedicated to motherhood, but could never turn off her civic activism switch. She was a member of the Community Chest, active in the League of Women Voters and the Women’s City Club, and volunteered for several other community organizations. Before running for council, she went door to door for the Department of Health and Human Services in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods to make sure children received vaccines. Her husband always quipped—according to Lynn—that Sterne would be “bored silly” without a greater cause to commit herself to, so he encouraged her to apply her passion for volunteerism and community service by getting involved in the Charter Committee, which his family had a hand in founding.
As a young Charterite in her 20s and 30s—and serving as a nice bit of foreshadowing—Sterne worked on the council campaigns of Dorothy Dolbey, who as vice mayor in 1954 served for six months as interim mayor upon Mayor Edward N. Waldvogel’s untimely death. Dolbey, who retired from city government in 1961, endorsed Sterne’s campaign a decade later.
Yet even as politically active and experienced as she was, Sterne never intended to run for office herself. “Charter asked her to run because they wanted to run a woman. She was very surprised—and in some ways flattered,” says Marilyn Ormsbee, a former campaign manager for Sterne. “It kind of got down to talking with her husband about it, and she thought, ‘Well, why not? I have some things I think I could change around here.’”
Following her loss in 1969, Bobbie finished seventh in 1971, taking her seat on the nine-person council alongside Tom Luken, William Chenault, Charlie Taft, Bill Gradison, Ted Berry, Guy Guckenberger, Jerry Springer, and Ralph Kohnen.
After the win, she told the The Cincinnati Enquirer, “Yes, you (even little you) can be effective and can change what happens in your city. Women can visit council, read—be involved. Bring issues to council, support school tax levies, take an active part. If you actually ring doorbells—no matter how small a part you take—you’ve invested something, and you pay more attention to government.”
Always a public servant, never a politician. That’s how colleagues and friends remember her 25 years on city council and two terms as mayor. “[Sterne] never cared about having a ‘political career,’” says Mann. “It was an extension of her commitment to the community.”
Her daughters describe their well-dressed and buttoned-up mother as shy, though she tended to hide that from those around her by powering through the often uncomfortable acts of campaigning and public speaking. “Her having to sit on the back of a convertible and wave to people in a parade was just—she cringed at things like that,” says Lynn. “But she pushed herself, and she got used to it.”
Bobbie Sterne felt strongly that women should be involved in government and worked tirelessly throughout her career to lift up and encourage those around her.
While in office, she worked to even the playing field between men and women, encouraging the hiring of more female police officers and firefighters and influencing the demise of the Enquirer’s gender-segregated help-wanted listings. Among Cincinnati’s multiple downtown revitalizations, her contributions are still visible today in the form of landscaping and universal handicap-accessible curb cuts on sidewalks. She prioritized health and human services, education, economic development, and social advancements throughout her career. “Some people might think those are ‘women’s issues,’ or ‘the soft issues,’” says Qualls. “But for her they really came from the heart.”
No issue was too small. “People would call her [and say], ‘Mrs. Sterne, I’ve got a problem with my license. Can you help me?’” remembers Babbitt. Sterne would keep a notepad next to her bed to track the requests. “She’d come into the office the next day and hand me a piece of paper and say ‘This person called me last night at 11 o’clock; they’re having garbage problems. Could you take care of it?’” says Babbitt. “They knew she would answer the phone and do something about it.”
Despite being nominated to a second mayoral term in 1978, her time in charge wasn’t without adversity. A strong and unflinching advocate for women’s reproductive rights and prenatal care, Sterne declared June 30, 1979, to be Lesbian-Gay Pride Day in Cincinnati, which evoked strong criticism and fruitless calls for her to rescind the declaration. “She couldn’t understand why that would be so controversial. That surprised her,” says Babbitt. “[To her], it didn’t seem like she was ahead of her time. She was just doing what they asked her for. She took a lot of heat for it.”
One day in particular was, by all accounts, the most challenging of her career. In the spring of 1979, following a surge in police officer deaths, the Cincinnati FOP planned a strike called “Stress Day.” Cruisers, lights flashing, lined Plum Street bumper to bumper. Hundreds of officers and community members showed up at City Hall, and officers laid the hats of eight slain officers atop Sterne’s mayoral podium. “I think she felt the weight of that [event] more than almost anything else during her council days,” says Babbitt, who was in attendance. Emotions were running high—a scuffle even broke out in the hallway—but both Babbitt and Mann cite Sterne’s calm and sympathetic resolve as the glue the kept the lid on City Hall that day. “I don’t think anyone else on council could have handled that,” says Mann.
In 1985, when the Charter-Democratic Coalition dissolved, Sterne lost her reelection bid for council. Still, she never strayed far from City Hall. Ormsbee collected weekly packets for her to read; Sterne even attended a few council meetings. “I think she felt that was not the way she wanted to go out,” says Ormsbee.
Sure enough, Sterne returned to council after a successful 1987 election, and quickly got back to her old ways. “Somewhere down the hall there, there was a big open space, and it wasn’t assigned to her, but she just went in and occupied it, and that became her office,” recalls Mann. “Nobody was going to tell her she had to leave.”
She served until July 2, 1998, when—in classic Sterne fashion—she made a quick escape. The strategic timing left the Charter Committee enough runway to establish her replacement, Jim Tarbell, who was sworn in that same day, before the next election. Coordinating the exit with then-mayor Qualls, Sterne essentially snuck out of the building, fellow councilmembers none the wiser, avoiding the inevitable goodbye speeches and attention. Her colleagues sat stunned as a council clerk read her resignation letter aloud, which included one last request: “Give special care to the children, the elderly, the sick, the homeless, the poor, and the disabled.”
On November 22, 2017, five days before her 98th birthday, Bobbie Sterne died in Santa Cruz, California, where she had moved to be closer to her daughters.
“Bobbie helped pave the way for other women to serve in elected office,” Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus told the Enquirer. “We are standing on her shoulders.”
Qualls, who served as the city’s mayor from 1993 to 1999, cites Sterne as one of her political role models. “She really was a trailblazer in this town,” says Qualls. “In my 20s and early 30s, looking for someone on the local level who was engaged, active, and smart, she checked all the boxes.”
Since the 2016 presidential election, there’s been a turning of the tide in American politics, with a record number of women signing up to run for local, state, and national office.
Groups such as She Should Run—a national nonprofit, nonpartisan organization—are attempting to continue narrowing that gender recruitment gap. “It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before,” says Clare Bresnahan English, the group’s former executive director. “We see women really owning their potential to make an impact, owning the fact that we have to be the leaders we’ve been waiting for.”
According to English, knowing where to start is often the most challenging aspect for women looking to get involved in public service, which is why the group’s focus is on providing access to necessary resources for women from all political parties and backgrounds. Research has shown that women still run for office less than men, but that when women do run, they tend to win at the same rates.
Sterne felt strongly that women should be involved in government and worked tirelessly throughout her career to lift up and encourage those around her. Along with her mostly female volunteers, she worked with the Women’s Political Conference to create literature for women interested in running, directing them to their local boards of election and assisting them with the petition process. Marian Spencer, the city’s first African-American woman voted to council, served for many years with Sterne and remembers how her deep knowledge of the issues and active role forced others to take her seriously. “She wasn’t just filling the time,” says Spencer. “She was there, and she knew what was going on and participated in the discussion.”
Even in her later years, Sterne’s daughters say she remained an avid supporter of women’s equality and representation in government, and was proud to see women standing up for themselves in the #MeToo era.
“Her parents really instilled in her the sense of, if you want life to be a certain way, or you appreciate democracy, then you have to work to make it exist,” says Lynn. “You can’t just expect other people to make it happen for you.”