Women are about to achieve a milestone in the state Senate

By Steve Swatt and Susie Swatt, Special to CALmatters

Once the votes are counted in a quiet, under-the-radar legislative special election in Los Angeles County on June 4, it’s likely that women will have shattered a record for representation in the state Senate, long characterized as an “old boys club.”   

Nothing is certain, of course, but consider the fact that one nominee – Democrat Lena Gonzalez – is running against a male Republican in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly five-to-one.  

Further, Gonzalez is a well-known councilwoman from Long Beach, the district’s largest city, while her opponent’s political base is tiny Cudahy, which is one-twentieth the size of Long Beach.

Last year, the Senate experienced a tectonic shift when Toni Atkins became its first female leader. With a Gonzalez victory, 14 seats, or 35%, would be held by women in the 40-member Senate. That’s hardly parity, but it’s a giant step forward since Rose Ann Vuich, a daughter of Yugoslav immigrants from the tiny Tulare County town of Dinuba, broke the gender barrier in the upper house in 1976.

Before Vuich, there had been more than 1,200 Senate elections since statehood, and men had won all of them. At her swearing in, Vuich felt the weight of history.

“I stood there, choking back tears, telling myself, ‘Don’t flub it. This is a men’s club and men don’t cry,’” she told the Bakersfield Californian in 1977.

The men of the staid Senate were unsure how to handle a woman’s presence.

“I was greeted with nothing less than shock,” she recalled in a 1979 interview with Margery Craig of the Copley News Service.

Vuich bought a small porcelain bell and kept it at her desk. Whenever one of her colleagues began a floor speech with, “Gentlemen of the Senate,” Vuich would ring the bell to remind them that a lady was in the house, as well.

Two years later, Diane Watson became the senate’s first female African American.

The late Jerry Zanelli, a Watson campaign adviser, recalled taking Watson on a meet-and-greet tour with other members. One veteran lawmaker pulled him aside and said, “Two women are enough.”

Other than for reasons of simple gender fairness, why does female leadership matter? Women bring dissimilar personal experiences and perspectives to lawmaking than men, which translate into different policy priorities.

When the first four women were elected to the Assembly in 1918, the Los Angeles Times characterized the event as an “experiment.” But it didn’t take long for these trailblazers to expand the quality of representation for their constituents.

Their advocacy and strong leadership, for example, led to legislation that reduced exploitation of women and children in the workplace and gave spouses the right to half of community property.

A century later, female-authored bills signed by Gov. Jerry Brown near the end of this fourth term increased protections for rape victims, narrowed the gender pay gap and expanded family leave.

Moreover, research shows women lawmakers tend to be more collaborative and bipartisan than men.
“Women like to deal with details and find a consensus,” Orange County Sen. Patricia Bates has said. “Women think, ‘A committee can solve this,’ and men go, ‘Oh no, not another committee.’”

With an expected Senate special election victory in June, the ranks of female political role models will inch higher at the Capitol and an even broader array of issues may gain attention. Still, when combined with the 2018 electoral successes, women will comprise fewer than one-third of the 120-member Legislature. Notably, California is one of only 20 states that has never elected a female governor. The quest for full gender political parity in California remains daunting.

Steve Swatt and Susie Swatt are co-authors of “Paving the Way: Women’s Struggle for Political Equality in California,” [email protected]. They wrote this commentary for CALmatters. Please read their previous CALmatters commentary by clicking here.

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