Progressive leader? When it comes to female lawmakers, California ties Georgia for 20th place

With the 2018 election hailed as the Year of the Woman, how far has California—a state that prides itself on being on the progressive vanguard—actually come?

As CALmatters’ latest “Legislators: Just Like You?” interactive demonstrates, only three out every ten lawmakers are now women. That means not only is California far behind neighboring Nevada, which became the first state with a majority of female legislators. It lags 19 states, including its other regional neighbors Arizona, Oregon and Washington, not to mention New York and Colorado, according to the latest count by the National Conference of State Legislatures. This is true despite the fact that California reached a high-water mark in the last election for the largest number of women elected to state and federal office this century.

Notably, California is represented by powerful women in Washington D.C., including both U.S. senators and the House Speaker, as well as its first female lieutenant governor, Eleni Kounalakis, and Senate President Pro Tem, Toni Atkins. It has never, however, come close to accurately reflecting the majority of adult Californians who are female, and has never elected a female governor.

Why the gap? Political scientists have noted that women sometimes face a double-standard of judgment even from female voters, and that women typically face more obstacles raising campaign cash. But there’s another potential barrier that deters women from running and winning elected office—the need for childcare. And a bill introduced by Democratic Assemblyman Rob Bonta of Alameda aims to lessen that barrier.

Even Bonta, when first ran for Assembly, found that a lack of childcare impacted him. “I had to miss meetings,” he said. “I had to miss important campaign events.”

Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio recalled traveling to events where her departing flight left at 7 a.m. and her her returning flight at 9 p.m. She even filled in 16 different names on her children’s emergency contact forms so that a vast cadre of family and friends were authorized to pick up her kids when she was on the campaign trail.

While the law now allows candidates to spend a max of $200 per event on childcare, according to the California Fair Political Practices Commission’s campaign manual, Bonta’s bill would eliminate that cap.

The manual currently doesn’t specify what constitutes an event, or whether parents may spend money on child care when they have flight schedules that conflict with their children’s school schedule? Bonta said the bill will create clarity.

Childcare has proven a challenge for many female candidates—among them Oakland’s new Democratic Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, who has acknowledged the complications of  breastfeeding her child while running for office.

“The thing that I realize is, sometimes in order to fight for change you need a little help changing the diaper.”

Parents of young children are part of this year’s class of new lawmakers. So while the number of female lawmakers still doesn’t match the number of men, the update in campaign finance rules could be one way to close that gap.

Democrat Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, left, plays with her two-year-old daughter, Josephine Ambler, on her desk after being sworn into the California Assembly, December 3, 2018 at the State Capitol in Sacramento, California.

Democrat Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, left, plays with her two-year-old daughter after being sworn in. Photo by Max Whittaker for CALmatters

“The simple truth is that women are underrepresented at every level of government—from city councils to state Assembly to Congress,” said the bill’s co-author Democratic Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris of Laguna Beach, in a press release. “This bill removes a critical barrier and helps more women run for office and enter public service.”

Note: This comparison is based on CALmatters’ calculation of the percentage of California’s female legislators, which at 30.5 percent ranks California slightly higher for gender equity than the 29.2 percentage used by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Our percentage is based on a total of 118 California legislators instead of 120, because two seats are currently vacant and will be filled by upcoming special elections.

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