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The current 1st District County Supervisor race between Laura Capps and Das Williams pits a well-known female school board member and activist against a longtime male incumbent elected official. Does their gender really matter?
I argue that it does. The current Board of Supervisors has one woman on it. When I was elected to the board in 1998, I was one of four women. For the next six years, women retained a majority, dropping to two in the beginning of 2005. There has been only one woman since 2019, Joan Hartmann who represents the 3rd District.
For transparency purposes and in full disclosure, I have endorsed Laura Capps for 1st District. I believe strongly in her candidacy. Having served eight years on the Board of Supervisors, I understand the job and its requirements, as well as the resources and knowledge needed to do it well. Laura will bring a broad resume of public sector and non-profit experiences to the Board and a passionate commitment to representing the people of the 1st District, where she grew up and is now raising her son.
In her campaign, Laura discusses issues affecting health care, poverty, children and families, housing and homelessness, as well as public safety. Much research has looked at women legislators who carry a feminist agenda into public office and the results of their work. I published a version of this article in Women’s eNews in 2014, now updated, but much of the original content remains the same.
The bottom line? Women still have not gained gender equality in public office.
The Political Gender Gap
In 1992, California elected a second female senator. Two women have represented us in the U.S. Senate ever since. We are the only state to advance women’s reproductive rights in the last few years. The state has rapidly moved forward on the Affordable Health Care Act, and California has had paid family leave since 2004.
But we have a political gender gap. The California State Legislature has 120 members with 37 seats held by women, 30.8 percent.
Organizations like EMERGE California and Close the Gap CA were founded to improve these numbers. Women’s rights activists and elected officials encourage and recruit women to run for office as well as offer training for their candidacies.
Does it really matter if women are in public office in equal numbers to men? Yes it does, just check the research that has been ongoing for more than 30 years.
In 1991, The Center for Women and American Politics published a series of findings about the impact of women on state legislatures. Women were more likely than men to support feminist and liberal policy positions such as passage of the ERA and support for abortion rights. It found that women were more likely than men to have worked on “women’s right legislation,” including issues affecting children, families, and health care.
Michele Swers followed in 2002 with her book on women in Congress, The Difference Women Make: The Policy Impact of Women in Congress. She studied the legislative process from bill initiation to the concluding vote and affirmed that women are more likely to “champion women’s issues.”
Benefiting All Constituents
Having more women in office benefits all constituents, UC Berkeley and University of Chicago researchers found in their 2011 study “The Jackie and Jill Robinson Effect.” Women bring 9 percent more spending to their districts from federal programs, they found. This translates to about $49 million more income for each district represented by a woman.
In their 2005 book, It Still Takes a Candidate, Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox argue that women have different political agendas from those of men. Women emphasize education, the environment, consumer protection, gay rights, health care and helping the poor. Men are more likely to carry bills on agriculture, business and the economy, crime, foreign policy and the military.
Elected women prioritize the social infrastructure. Having served eight years as a California county supervisor, I learned that women consider public health to be as much a budget priority as public safety. On the local level, supporting mental health programs and social services becomes as important as fixing streets and funding patrol cars.
Reviewing the work of women in the California State Legislature during a period from1993 to 2008 revealed that women make a difference for women.
Los Angeles County Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis served 14 and 10 years respectively in the State Legislature. During their years in Sacramento, Kuehl and Solis carried a series of bills that focused on children, civil rights, domestic violence, education, employment, health care, and reproductive rights.
Jackie Speier served a combined 18 years in both state houses before becoming a Northern California congressmember. Her successful record of bills passed in California includes issues affecting children, consumer services, domestic violence, education, health care, and reproductive rights.
Santa Barbara State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson served six years in the State Assembly and in 2012 was elected to the State Senate. Jackson’s successful legislative record includes numerous bills focused on children, consumer services, domestic violence, education, the environment, health care, and reproductive rights.
Jackson passed legislation expanding the definition of family for California’s Family Medical Leave Act. (California was the first state in the country to enact paid family leave.) Today, the definition of family in California for paid leave includes seriously ill grandparents, grandchildren, siblings and in-laws. More recently Jackson led efforts to pass the strongest pay equity bill in the country as well as legislation that requires women to be appointed to corporate boards.
All Is Not Well
Progress for women has been made in California because of dedicated legislators such as Kuehl, Solis, Speier, and Jackson.
But all is still not well for women in California. The California Center for Research on Women and Families has focused their work on the unmet needs of women in child care, economic empowerment, health care, poverty relief and Title IX implementation.
In recent years the state has balanced its budget on the backs of women and children. One in four children and one in three single mothers in California live in poverty, according to the Women’s Foundation of California.
To rise out of poverty, women need job training and job programs; an increased minimum wage; equal pay for equal work; and family justice programs including child care, paid family leave, paid sick leave and flexible work schedules.
Data from the Center for American Women in Politics show that women still have a long way to go to reach gender balance in office. In the U.S. Senate there are 26 of 100 seats held by women and in the House of Representatives, only 101 of the 435 seats are held by women. The average for both houses combined is about 23.7 percent.
Across the United States, women hold nine of the 50 governorships and only about 29 percent of state legislative offices.
If we are to succeed as a nation, there must be equal representation of women in elected office. “When women succeed, America succeeds,” said President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, 2014. Taking political power to gain equality becomes an imperative for American women.