In summary

The number of women in the California Legislature is at an all-time high, but fewer than one-third is female. Will their numbers increase in November?

By Steve Swatt and Susie Swatt, Special to CalMatters

Steve Swatt and Susie  Swatt are lead coauthors of “Paving the Way: Women’s Struggle for Political Equality in California,”

Since late 2017, women politicos in California have been on an impressive electoral winning streak, gaining a dozen seats in the Legislature and a bushel of victories in mayoral contests from San Francisco to Costa Mesa.

According to the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University, which keeps track of such things, California’s level of female representation in the Legislature – compared to other states – rocketed from 30th in the nation in 2017 to 18th currently. In 2018, Californians also elected three daughters of immigrants to statewide constitutional offices, as advances by women defined the election cycle. KQED headlined its election report, “Was It the Year of the Woman in California?

Amid the ’18 post-election elation, however, Sacramento State University political science professor Kimberly Nalder sounded a note of caution. She observed that women still remained significantly under represented.

 “Hopefully,” she said, “this curve starts to increase – become steeper – because otherwise we’re looking at the end of our lifetimes before women reach parity in the state Legislature at this pace.” 

After this month’s primaries, surveys of the political landscape haven’t changed her outlook. “The rate of increase in the proportion of women in office is distressingly glacial.”

 Currently, the number of women in the Legislature is at an all-time high, but fewer than one-third of the 120-member body is female. As they try to inch their way to parity, women benefit significantly when they compete for open seats – those without incumbents who have distinct advantages in fundraising, endorsements, visibility and campaign organization. 

In the 1990s, term limits forced many entrenched, mostly male lawmakers out of office. Further, as the #MeToo and #WeSaidEnough movements were gaining momentum beginning in 2017, five sitting male legislators resigned from office before their terms expired. Most of them left amid accusations of inappropriate behavior toward women. In the ensuing special elections without incumbents, women won four of those contests.

Is this upward movement sustainable? Last year, women did win two more special elections after male incumbents resigned their seats after winning higher office. But changes in the state’s term limits law, as well as recent primary election results, indicate that the upward trajectory of women’s success at the polls will be less dramatic this year.  

First, there are fewer contests for open seats.  California may be a progressive trendsetter, but in 2012 voters unknowingly erected a roadblock that has impeded the drive toward gender equity.

When they agreed to adjust the state’s term limit law, voters allowed incumbents to serve up to 12 years consecutively in either legislative house. An unintended consequence is that not a single member of the Assembly will be termed out before 2024, suggesting there will be fewer occasions to alter its gender make-up absent a spate of resignations by male lawmakers. 

In the Senate, which didn’t seat its first woman until 1976, the terrain is a bit more favorable, with term limits creating six open-seat races this year. In addition, one male senator recently resigned to join the Trump Administration. Women this fall could make small, incremental gains in the Senate.

Another factor affecting gender parity is that despite the surge in female candidacies in recent years, men continue to outpace women office-seekers. In pre-primary legislative contests this year, 60 percent of the candidates were men. In the U.S. House, the disparity was more than 2-to-1. To lure more women into the political arena, organizations up and down California are ramping up programs to mentor and train women to run for office.

Why is it important to elect more women? Women are likely to bring a different set of perspectives than men. Further, studies indicate that women are more likely to seek consensus on contentious issues, thus facilitating problem-solving.

Nalder isn’t completely without hope, at least in the long term, as younger generations become part of the electorate and the “unconscious bias of older generations” fades. Gen Zers and Millenials simply don’t look at gender matters the way many of their parents and grandparents do, she says. In addition, there are more visible examples of successful women exercising political power. 

“Tides turn,” she says. “A new normal will eventually arrive, but it may take a generational replacement to bring it about.”


Steve Swatt and Susie  Swatt are lead coauthors of “Paving the Way: Women’s Struggle for Political Equality in California,”

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