By Mark Gutglueck
Magda Lawson was the 86th member of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and the first woman to be a member of that body.
Born on April 5, 1887 in Swanedorg, Sweden, Magda Elizabeth Lawson was the second of August and Elizabeth Larson’s three daughters. Her early education was provided in Sweden. After her father’s death, she was invited to accompany several others emigrating to the United States. Her mother secured for her the least costly passage to Boston, where she arrived in 1901, carrying only a small wardrobe, very little money and no knowledge of English. She immediately changed her name from Larson to Lawson.
A week after her arrival, she obtained a job as a maid in a boarding house which provided her with room and board and $1.50 per week. From 1901 until 1906 she worked as a maid in Boston, finding occasional other jobs, while mastering English, essentially on her own by extensive reading. She then attended business school, learning typing and bookkeeping. She then embarked on a journey across her adopted country, performing odd jobs along the way. Once in Los Angeles, she obtained work as both a salesgirl in a department store and a waitress in a restaurant. She also went on working vacations, working as a maid or waitress at establishments near the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone Park. She returned to Los Angeles, where she had established a residence.
Toward the end of the First World War in 1918, she moved to Needles, obtaining work there as a typist, bookkeeper and receptionist at the Earl Hodge Automobile Agency. Upon Hodge’s death in 1920, she took over the nearly bankrupt operation of what was then a combined Studebaker, Chrysler and Plymouth agency, together with its accompanying financing and insurance components. With the money she earned there, she purchased a cattle ranch in Oregon, which she visited often. In 1926, she sold the ranch and she used the proceeds from that sale to build a home in Needles. In 1926 the automobile agency was sold, providing Hodge’s heirs with a windfall and giving her sole proprietorship of the financing and insurance ends of the business.
Lawson obtained U.S. citizenship in 1927 and the same year returned to Sweden for three months. She returned to Needles, greatly expanding the insurance operation while increasing her real estate holdings. In 1936 she became a licensed insurance broker. With the advent of World War II, she served on the Needles Ration Board for the entirely of the time the United States was engaged in the conflict.
Lawson never married. Throughout this time she made many contacts at both the business and governmental levels and grew to have a degree of influence in public affairs in the desert area uncommon at that time for her gender.
In 1952, she was prevailed upon to challenge the incumbent First District supervisor, H. George Cunningham. Her popular appeal throughout the desert translated into a victory at the polls, making her the first woman to serve as San Bernardino County supervisor. She served in that capacity during a first term, from 1952 to 1956 and was reelected to a second term that lasted from 1956 to 1960.
As it had been for Cunningham and the First District supervisors before him, representing the vast First District was a challenge. As the largest district in what was the largest county in the country, Lawson was obliged to drive all of the highways covering the 18,000 square mile district. During her tenure in office, she wore out five of her personal vehicles in maintaining contact with her constituents and attending board meetings.
Lawson advocated road improvements in her district and during her eight year tenure, more than 3,000 miles of roads in the Mojave Desert were paved. Roads linking Amboy, Twentynine Palms, Kelso and Baker were created. She pushed through recreational improvements on the Colorado River, including ones near Parker Dam and a marina in Needles.
At one point, she took it upon herself to travel to Washington, D.C. to lobby on behalf of, and succeed in getting, recognition of the impoverished state of the Indians residing throughout her district, which brought federal aid to their reservations.
In 1957, Lawson took up the cause of Iva Powell, who was seeking a municipal court judgeship. Powell’s opponents pointed out that the last woman in the county to seek elevation to the bench had been the widow of a mule skinner who was defeated in the 1918 election. That precedent was one reason to keep Powell from advancing, her opponents argued. Moreover, they said, Powell had not joined the local chamber of commerce, another strike against her. Lawson overrode those objections and appointed Powell.
“She will be long remembered for her devotion to duty and to the principles of good government,” a county publication printed in 2006, San Bernardino County Supervisors 1855-2006, states. “When historians write about the dedicated and courageous women of the West, they will have to include Magda Lawson; storms, floods, blizzards, bad roads – or no roads at all – never stopped her from her duty to her people.”
While in office, Lawson attended seminars and classes in Los Angeles pertaining to government and business, which she said helped her in her ability to serve her constituents. She also further refined during this period her musicianship on the violin, an instrument with which she was accomplished. She also took up painting, and completed numerous desert landscapes.
In 1959, the County Fair at Victorville was dedicated in her honor.
After leaving office, she remained in Needles, where she was a charter member of the Professional and Business Women’s Club. Throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s, she worked the reception desk at the Needles Chamber of Commerce.
She continued to cultivate a garden at her Needles home. At the age of 89, Lawson suffered an injury to her leg while climbing stairs to her apartment and was forced to leave Needles, where she had lived for 59 years, to spend her final eight years at the Valley Convalescent Hospital in San Bernardino. It was there that she died at the age of 97 on November 13, 1984.
By Mark Gutglueck