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The Exceptions and the Norm


While women represent half of California's population, they make up only one-fourth of the California State Legislature. Source: Dishary Hossain

While women represent half of California’s population, they make up only one-fourth of the California State Legislature. Source: Dishary Hossain


California Attorney General Kamala Harris and United States Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez—both are in the lead for the 2016 election to the U.S. Senate as representative of the state of California. Senator Dianne Feinstein and Senator Barbara Boxer—both have been active in politics for over 20 years. Speaker Toni Atkins—she is the current leader of the California State Assembly. Assembly Member Kristin Olsen—she is the current minority leader in the State Assembly. State Controller Betty Yee, Fiona Ma, and Diane Harkey—they make up the female majority on California’s Board of Equalization, which is responsible for administering state taxes and collecting fees.

These and other women serving in the state and local governments demonstrate that women are taking on important roles in California politics. However, they serve as the exceptions—women continue to be vastly underrepresented. Although women account for about 50.3% of California’s overall population, they remain a minority in the California State Legislature, holding 19 seats out of 80 in the State Assembly and 12 seats out of 40 in the State Senate, making up 25.8% of the state’s legislature. Compared to past years, these numbers remain unchanged. Compared to other states, this percentage of women in the state legislature is not positively outstanding; California ranks 20th in the nation, while women make up more than 40% of legislatures in states such as Colorado, which is ranked first. Moreover, men are generally elected in greater numbers to local governments all over California.

There seem to be social factors responsible for this tremendous gender gap in political representation. In general, in contrast to men, women are often “invited to the table,” and deciding to run for a political position is not always automatic. That is, potential female candidates often run for office after being asked or recommended to do so by fellow supporters. According to a Brookings Institution study, compared to men, women are not as likely to “be recruited to run for office,” and may not “have the freedom to reconcile work and family obligations with a political career.” In some cases, they may feel they are not “qualified” to run for office even if they are extremely qualified.

These factors make women in California politics the exceptions, not the norm. One way to turn the exceptions into the norm is the increased recruitment of women for political offices through the efforts of established political leaders, incumbents, and general supporters. Prominent political leaders can make greater efforts to identify and express support for potential women candidates, who may be spurred to run for office. Also, the support of well-established political figures can provide strong backing for candidates and help them succeed in elections. Women incumbents especially may identify potential female successors for their positions and guide these women through the process of getting elected or appointed. Even general supporters who are not powerful political leaders may personally encourage women to run or apply for positions in government. While this method may at times be a form of “inviting women to the table,” it can also help to sustain and increase women’s representation in politics and inspire more women to run.

Another method of changing current trends is working through national and statewide organizations. Various advocacy organizations and political action committees are actively recruiting women to run for office and informing women about the political arena. EMILY’s List has aimed to help pro-choice women get elected by recruiting and training women and supporting candidates’ campaigns. It recently announced a project to inform women in California about Julia Brownley, a pro-choice candidate who may be seen as a champion of women’s rights. CaliforniaLIST, too, works to elect pro-choice women to offices across the state, supporting pro-choice female incumbents during elections, recruiting and training candidates, and connecting candidates with financial donors. California Women Lead is a nonpartisan organization that encourages women to run or apply for office. It holds leadership trainings and conferences, gives women opportunities to network, and serves as a forum for discussion of issues that concern women. The efforts of these and other organizations are direct efforts at motivating and encouraging women to take on more politically active roles. Instead of simply being asked to join the table of politics, women are being empowered as they experience the political process.

Such organizations are also working to educate and inform women at large about politics and motivate women to become community leaders. EMILY’s List encourages more women voters to get more women elected into office through its WOMEN VOTE! program. California Women Lead, the League of Women Voters of California, and other organizations play important roles in educating and informing women about political issues, by encouraging them to become more politically aware and active through direct community engagement. Often, these organizations interact with women in local communities and bring women together. They are an opportunity for women to learn about state and local issues and women’s roles in politics. They provide women with tools to form opinions, which may lead more women to vote. This may translate into more women voting for the female candidates who represent their interests and in turn increase women’s representation in California politics.

In spite of all this, there remains an immense need to achieve even greater gender parity in California politics and to make California’s representation of women in politics an exception to the norm. It is important to continue current efforts because it is important for women to be represented and empowered to be active citizens, whether through voting or running for political office—they provide different perspectives on a variety of issues, including and especially those that concern women. Women active in politics set examples as leaders of the community. They ultimately tell women that women have a voice that can and should be heard.