My turn: Women make big political gains. Obstacles remain

By Steve Swatt and Susie Swatt, Special to CALmatters

With the #Me-too movement and rising political engagement as backdrops, California women won three statewide constitutional offices for the first time in history Tuesday.

Dianne Feinstein’s re-election means voters have chosen women to hold both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats for three consecutive decades, and the only woman ever to serve as Speaker of the U.S. House, Californian Nancy Pelosi, is expected to return to that role when the House passes to Democratic hands.

Eleni Kounalakis’ election as lieutenant governor is particularly notable. She’s the first elected to that office in California history. Although no woman has been elected California governor, Kounalakis will be acting governor whenever Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom is out of the state.

She will join Treasurer-elect Fiona Ma and Controller Betty Yee on a deepening bench of female Democrats who have proven they can appeal to a statewide electorate.

California women also made solid showings in legislative contests. Once millions of uncounted votes are tallied, women could set a record for state Senate representation and gain up to three Assembly seats. They also gained at least one congressional seat.

However, women likely will make up only about one-third of the state’s congressional delegation and roughly 30 percent of the Legislature when the newcomers are sworn in.

More than 190 women candidates ran for statewide, legislative and congressional offices this election cycle, surpassed only in 1992’s “Year of the Woman.” The question is: Can this new activism lead to even greater future successes?

California’s first wave of activism culminated in 1911 when, after decades of legislative setbacks and a notable election failure in 1896, suffragists narrowly secured the vote from an all-male electorate.

Two months later, after 70,000 women stood in lines to join the Los Angeles voter rolls, an astounding 95 percent of them cast ballots in a citywide election.

In 1918, the first four women legislators – three Republicans and one Democrat – captured seats in the Assembly and became policy leaders on such issues as criminal justice, mental health, education, water and women’s rights. Still, women were reluctant to abandon their traditional roles to enter the rough-and-tumble world of politics.

During the entire 1920s, women sought state offices only 62 times, and many of them ran as minor-party hopefuls under the Socialist and Prohibition banners rather than take their chances in the established male-dominated major parties.

Depression-era societal attitudes discouraged women from taking jobs away from out-of-work men. In much of the 1940s, women were expected to work in defense factories, not politics. And in the 1950s, as portrayed on popular television sit-coms, a woman’s place was culturally perceived as being at home taking care of children.

As late as 1960, only 13 women ran for state offices.

A second wave of political activism began in the mid-1960s as women demonstrated for equality in such areas as employment, healthcare and education. Scientific advancements in birth control freed more women to enter higher education and the workplace.

The number of women candidates in California more than tripled between the ‘60s and the ‘70s, and more than doubled again in the 1990s. That’s when a third wave of activism occurred, triggered by the U.S. Senate’s confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court despite Anita Hill’s testimony that she was sexually harassed by Thomas when he was her boss.

This year’s electoral successes illustrate the promise of women’s prospects as they seek political parity in California. But they belie the fact that women will face headwinds in the Legislature well into the next decade.

A 2012 voter-approved change in term limits allows lawmakers to serve up to 12 years in either house. One unintended consequence is that not a single Assembly member will be termed out of office before 2024.

Women challengers, therefore, will face the traditionally daunting task of taking on incumbents who have distinct advantages in fundraising, visibility, community support and campaign organization.

Advocates for political equality should be pleased with the election results and the surge in female candidacies. But institutional roadblocks could impede their progress in California over the near term. Further, how can this state think of itself as a progressive trendsetter when it’s one of only 20 states that has never elected a female governor? And it could be several years before a woman even gets a realistic chance.

Steve Swatt, [email protected], Susie Swatt, [email protected], Rebecca LaVally, and Jeff Raimundo are co-authors of “Paving the Way: Women’s Struggle for Political Equality in California,” to be published early in 2019 by the Institute of Governmental Studies, UC Berkeley. They wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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