How I Became a Politican

How I Became A Politican” 
Written by Mary C. Cates for the Springmoor program “Tell Me a Story” Sepetmeber 24, 2013


My mother and grandmother probably turned over in their graves more than a few times as a witness for how the world is changing and how I was living my life. With great respect for both of them, I’m quite sure they shook their heads and declared they didn’t understand me at all. How can I be one of their offspring? - that I had spoiled my good name by getting into politics, indeed had gotten out of my place altogether. I can hear them saying now some of the words are used to say: “fools rush in where angels fear to tread”, “fools’ names are like their faces, always seen in public places” and in general passing on what had been passed on to them – that you live in such a way that your neighbors respect you, you work hard to pay your own way, and help those in need.

These were and still are good rules and they have been enough for life back then. I went through school afraid to get out of line for fear of what the neighbors might think. I started to work as a secretary (my choices were schoolteacher, nurse or secretary), was married after the war (the big one) and continued to work until my husband received his PhD and we had children . My world, and the world around me, begin to change; the basic tenets that my mother lived by didn’t go far enough to meet the challenges that I begin to see. Religion played a bigger part in shaping the challenges than I realized. The church was saying “don’t hide your light under a bushel”, “you have but one life”, “you too can walk on water (do the impossible) if you keep your eyes on what is good” — we are stewards of this world the short time we are here. 

The struggle for me was had to deal with these messages, these challenges. To get the mainstream of life, I would be going beyond sometimes contrary to what I learned from my mother grandmother and the other women I knew at the time. I certainly would be getting outside the comfort zone I had with my friends and family. But if I didn’t act out of my sensitivity when I lose it? If I didn’t use my intelligence to help identify itself problems that I saw with my intelligence become dulled? Do we indeed have a responsibility to try and make this a better world? I’m sure you agree that we do. But how do we go about this?

Here’s what I found myself doing. I would talk to my husband. I would tell them about the problem or opportunity and hope as a mail he would decide to do something about it. It took me a while to realize that he had his own problems and after when I discussed my concerns he was preoccupied with his agenda or trying to relax – not take on more problems.

Next I tried a bigger audience – the bridge club. Looking back I suppose I expected to have my thinking validated, to hear that my concerns are legitimate, and they get courage meant from them to act on my connection. Usually what I heard was “it’s your turn to bid”. 

Obviously I need to find people to share my concerns. In the late 60s and early 70s brought the environmental issues into our living rooms. Ecology became a household word. I joined all kinds of groups – a group to save Umstead Park from a proposed airport runway, the League of Women Voters, citizen advisory groups, city committees and commissions [current openings ladies!], generally becoming a member of the chorus for all quality-of-life issues. I was a member of the chorus as leaders changed our burned out. Sometimes I was singing the loudest or singing alone. Finally it became more work to get or keep the leader working then to do the work myself. Most of you have experience this, I’m sure. Yet I doubted my skills as a leader, still had the old fear of what the neighbors would think, or general didn’t have my own goal sorted out well enough to set a clear direction or adequate motivation. And I needed more confidence in myself to get out front. I had not yet realized that my conditioning as a woman to a subservient role was getting in the way.


The revolution of the late 60s said a lot to me. Among other things it said that there should be no second class citizens, that our democracy could not survive without full participation from all its citizens – regardless of race, sex, religion, economics, IQ or appearance. It said you are important because you are in a unique person. There is no one else like you. It said believe in the art of the possible – you could make a difference. All that ties back of the biblical message – use your God-given talents. Let your light shine. Do that which is good for the world.

There were stones in the harbor for me that I had to work loose in making a change in my life. Two basic things help me move ahead out of my comfort zone. (1) re-evaluation counseling help me to recognize and evaluate my assets to come to terms with my liabilities, to think more positively about myself and others – that we are all worthwhile human beings. (2) a little book called “how to get control of your time in life “ by Alan Lakin. [also cited as a resource by Gloria Steinem] This gets into the goal-setting. I gave a book club program on this book some years ago and found a few women in the room had thought in terms of personal goals this book suggests a written exercise. Make a list of what you would choose to do if you had only six months to live a year and five-years. Do you want A better job? Do you want to go to Europe? Do you want to run for political office? Then what is it you need to do to accomplish your goal? Cross of anything that you were not willing to spend at least five minutes a day on. This may mean you get up five minutes earlier or go to bed five minutes later this get you into time management strategies.

When I inventoried my talents and experiences I knew I had been too long singing in the chorus- working behind the scenes trying to get the job done and trying to influence others who had the vote. With the reevaluation of my personal skills, with goal-setting, and with time management, I decided that I could be one of the decision-makers with the Vote. I ran for city council against an incumbent, and won the first time I tried! Then was re-elected the second time with 77% of the vote and so on and so on for five terms. Thanks to support from my family friends and the ladies from the bridge club.

If indeed my mother and grandmother could see how I live my life, I like to think that they are pleased and applauded to see that women can now risk being the fool instead of the angel floating above life. I like to think that my change came a time for me to make a real contribution to my community and its citizens. I even hope that I was a role model to others. I am pleased that I had the courage to get out of my place and act on my sensitivity and intelligence.   

PS: I found out along the way, the neighbors were actually thinking about me at all!

Mary Cates
March 13, 1927 - February 28, 2018

Watch this video from her 2012 induction into the Raleigh Hall of Fame (which she also founded)


“SHE PERSISTED” - Former Mayor Smedes York


Mary Cates hosting a Meet & Greet at Springmoor for Mayor Nancy McFarlane, Councilor Russ Stephenson and Councilor Dickie Thompson. You can be SURE precinct 07-07A always went BLUE!

Mary Cates hosting a Meet & Greet at Springmoor for Mayor Nancy McFarlane, Councilor Russ Stephenson and Councilor Dickie Thompson. You can be SURE precinct 07-07A always went BLUE!