Number of Women in Calif. Legislature Dips to Nearly 20-Year Low — Now What?

Autumn R. Burke is sworn in on Dec. 5, 2016. She represents the 62nd District in the California State Assembly.

Autumn R. Burke is sworn in on Dec. 5, 2016. She represents the 62nd District in the California State Assembly. (Courtesy the California Assembly)

For a lot of women, this was supposed to be a big political year. The year a woman would be elected president and provide some long coattails for other women to grab onto. But, as we now know, Hillary Clinton came up short in her bid for the presidency. And state legislatures around the country saw the number of female representatives either drop or remain flat.

So is it time to throw out the playbook on getting women to run for office and start over? Government professor Jennifer Lawless says: Not so fast.

“For several decades now, the evidence has demonstrated that when women run for office, they are just as likely as men to win their races,” she says.

Lawless directs the Women & Politics Institute at American University in Washington, D.C. The question, Lawless says, isn’t whether women can win elections, but how to convince them to run. She says the majority of women who do run are Democrats, so there’s an easy fix if you’re looking for a way to get more women into office relatively quickly.

“One of the easiest ways to increase women’s overall numeric representation is for the Republicans in particular to start fielding an increased number of female candidates,” Lawless says.

In California, the Republican Party didn’t put any special emphasis on electing women this year. In the state Senate, the party lost one female representative. In the Assembly it lost five. Democrats lost two women in the Senate. But in the Assembly, Democrats actually added three women to their ranks. Overall, there are 26 women serving in the Legislature, the lowest number since 1998.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia chairs the Legislative Women’s Caucus. She credits the growth in the Assembly to a concerted effort by her and other Democrats, including male colleagues.

“You can’t just say we want more women in office,” Garcia says. “If you have power, you need to use that power to move these women to the front of the list and make sure we’re getting behind them.”

Garcia focused heavily on getting Latino women elected to office this cycle. She says she also wants to help women currently in the Legislature become leaders in policy areas they care about.

“We have women who want to be experts and leaders in housing, who want to be leaders and experts in transportation,” she says. “So how do we prop them up so they can be leading the discussion?”

Aimee Allison agrees it’s smart to focus on women of color. Allison is with PowerPAC+, which provides financial support to progressive candidates of color. She points out that women of color are the most loyal Democratic Party voters, yet elections don’t often reflect that.

“Women in politics tends to be a white woman’s game, largely,” she says. “So the money raised and the spends are not on the full range of diversity, in terms of women.”

While the number of women in the state Legislature fell this year, the number of women serving on county boards of supervisors actually increased, from 67 in 2014 to 76 after the 2016 elections.

Gov. Jerry Brown has been praised for putting women in leadership roles within the state’s executive branch and for filling roughly half his appointed positions with women. But he appeared unconcerned about their numbers in the Legislature when recently speaking with reporters .

“I don’t know that mathematical exactitude is what either the Constitution requires or what we should be worried about,” Brown says. “Not everything is defined by gender. It’s a very important category, but there’s a lot of life that transcends gender.”

Still, Rachel Michelin, with the political training organization California Women Lead, says having more women in the Legislature matters. And with the current number dipping so low,  Michelin says women could be further sidelined from major discussions.

“With that small group of women, you’re losing out on committee chairships. You’re losing out on leadership positions,” she says. ” So that also is going to affect fundraising and the ability to raise money to help get other women elected.”

Michelin says her group is already focused on future elections. In 2021 political districts will be redrawn, possibly creating more open seats in the California Legislature.  When that time comes, Michelin wants more women across the state to be prepared to run for those positions.

  • Hillary Clintub

    I really do wish America would get off its identity politics kick and realize that membership in some identifiable racial, gender, ethnic or religious group isn’t what qualifies a person to be a good legislator. What really matters is their proven ability to have good and realistic ideas…and the ability to MANAGE them well. That last is – IMO – the best qualifier we could expect, regardless of what group someone identifies with. Nearly everyone can have a good idea every once in awhile but few people actually have the ability to make their ideas come to life in the real world. That’s why I wish we had more proven successful entrepreneurs in government rather than so many people who just like to pander as a political game for wealth and power.

    • tom_merle

      Well said, but we should still seek to understand why women qua women are less inclined to run for office even if a few more now sit on county supervisor boards. There are all sorts of evolutionary and other psychological causes that lower female interest. The traits called out by the previous comment tend to be most often associated with males. So be it.


Katie Orr

Katie Orr is a Sacramento-based reporter for KQED's Politics and Government  Desk, covering the state Capitol and a variety of issues including women in politics, voting and elections and legislation. Prior to joining KQED in 2016, Katie was state government reporter for Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. She's also worked for KPBS in San Diego, where she covered City Hall.

Katie received her masters degree in political science from San Diego State University and holds a Bachelors degree in broadcast journalism from Arizona State University.

In 2015 Katie won a national Clarion Award for a series of stories she did on women in California politics. She's been honored by the Society for Professional Journalists and, in 2013, was named by The Washington Post as one of the country's top state Capitol reporters.   She's also reported for the award-winning documentary series The View from Here and was part of the team that won  national PRNDI and  Gabriel Awards in 2015. She lives in Sacramento with her husband. Twitter: @1KatieOrr

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