This is a modified version of the original story by Sameea Kamal and Ariel Gans for use in classrooms.

A gift or a curse? 

For Democrat Angelique Ashby, running as a “women’s advocate” in a heated state Senate race in Sacramento might be a little of both.

Dave Jones is also a Democrat. He is running against Ashby. He went to court to block Ashby from using “women’s advocate” as her ballot designation under her name. His lawyers argued that it wasn’t her job. It should not appear under her name.

Jones, a former Assemblymember, won his argument. But Ashby also benefited. The lawsuit fired up some of her supporters and prompted a firestorm on social media. Sacramento County hasn’t sent a woman to the Legislature since 2014. Some people believe now is the time to elect a “women’s advocate.”

“If you needed a reminder, you got one today. Women are still marginalized and easily dismissed,” Ashby said in a statement on the ballot designation decision. “But I refuse to accept that as our fate. Let this be a rallying cry. Elect more women.”

The Nov. 8 election presents a big opportunity for women. The number of female legislators could rise above the current record of 39 of 120 seats. 

The overturning of Roe vs. Wade has generated more energy among female voters. It also highlighted the importance of having women in policy-making roles.

Still, many women running for the Legislature for the first time face similar barriers to any political newcomer. They have smaller support networks and difficulty fundraising. In some cases, they experience targeted attacks.

Redwood City Mayor Giselle Hale got a spot on the November ballot in one of the most-watched Assembly races this year. However, she dropped out of the race six weeks after the June primary. Her decision shocked the California political world. 

Hale blamed attack ads funded by real estate and apartment associations. These ads were supporting Diane Papan, the deputy mayor of San Mateo.

Hale said that she could ignore the ads. She couldn’t expect the same of her five-year-old daughter though. Her daughter regularly saw the ads while watching kids’ YouTube shows. Her eight-year-old daughter had a classmate bring a negative ad about Hale to school.​

After seeing her experience, more than a dozen women told her they would never run for office, Hale said. “People were terrified to run after watching my race,” she said in an interview.

Aisha Wahab is a Hayward City Council member running for a state Senate seat representing Alameda and Santa Clara counties.

Female candidates have to answer questions about whether they’re qualified, competent, emotionally stable and “dedicated enough,” she said. 

“Men don’t necessarily have to do that,” Wahab said.

A look at the numbers

Today, women hold 24 out of 80 seats in the state Assembly and 15 out of 40 in the Senate. At 32.5%, that’s slightly above the average of 31.1% for legislatures around the country.

But that representation is far below equal. Half of Californians and a majority of California voters are women. 

Of the 100 legislative seats on the Nov. 8 ballot, women are guaranteed to win 19 of them. Six female state senators aren’t up for election this year and will join them. 

In 2022, California boasts several “first females” in statewide offices. Lt. Gov Eleni Kounalakis is the first woman elected to that office. Treasurer Fiona Ma and Controller Betty Yee are the first women of color in those positions. Yet, in its 172 years, progressive California is one of 19 states that has never had a female governor.

Women have made some gains in policymaking. This past session, they helped lead a legislative effort to reduce plastic pollution

“If you don’t have women at the negotiating table, these policy issues don’t get to see the light of day,” said Ivy Cargile. She is a political science professor at California State University, Bakersfield. “These voices don’t get heard, and they continue to be marginalized.”

A 2020 study by the National Women’s Law Center found that “greater levels of women’s representation led to greater legislative achievements.” These achievements are not just for women, but for the whole legislature.

Not just gender

In California, 24 of the 39 members of the Legislative’s Women’s Caucus are women of color. There has been a dramatic increase in representation of women of color since 2012. 

But the total number doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s only one Black woman in the Senate. There is only one Asian American woman in the Legislature. In 2014, there were only three Latina legislators, so they got together to help recruit more. Now, that number is 20.

Is the future female?

To increase representation in California, Cargile said that women must be “ready in the pipeline.”

Some changes to running for office and serving in office could help make that happen.

Hale pointed out campaigning can be very difficult for women with young children. It wasn’t until 2019 that California candidates were allowed to use campaign funds on some childcare expenses.

“It’s not only a sacrifice of time with your children, it’s a huge sacrifice of your resources and your money,” Hale said. 

She also suggested allowing more flexibility in the hours and raising the pay of being a legislator.

Another path Hale sees for new candidates is for California to match small campaign donations with public financing to help even the playing field for those without big donors.

Rhonda Shader, a Republican running in an Orange County state Senate race, said it takes “a lot of courage” to run for office. However, government works best “when we all take a turn.”

“Somebody else needs to step up,” she said. 

Ashby is trying. At her rally, some supporters cited her support for equal pay and her mentorship of young women.   “She’s not a politician to us. She’s a community member and a mom… interested in making Sacramento better,” said Pamela Santich, 63, a Sacramento resident.

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