Women Set a Record in the State Senate

Co-authors of Paving the Way: Women’s Struggle for Political Equality in California.

Good Grief! What is happening to the state Senate’s good old boys network?

This week’s special election of Long Beach City Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez to the venerable upper house gives women 35 percent representation (14 seats) in the 40-member Senate – certainly not gender parity but nonetheless the largest female contingent in the institution’s nearly 170-year history. The 80-member Assembly, at 29 percent female, has never reached the 35 percent threshold.

California’s newest legislator fills the spot left vacant after Ricardo Lara’s election as insurance commissioner last November. When Gonzalez was born 38 years ago, only two women were serving as senators – Rose Ann Vuich from rural Tulare County and Diane Watson from Los Angeles – and they had been fairly recent additions.

Until Vuich’s surprise victory in 1976, the Senate had been an exclusive male-only enclave – despite more than 1,200 separate elections since statehood. Members and  powerful lobbyists for such interests as the railroad, liquor, transportation and racetrack industries used to eat together, carouse together and make public policy together.

The daughter of Yugoslav immigrants, Vuich was raised on a farm and pursued a career in accounting and tax consulting before jumping into the Senate contest as an independent Democrat in a Republican-leaning district. She was one of four women nominees from the two major parties running for the Senate that year and was considered least likely to succeed.

Veteran lobbyist Terry McHale once recalled that Democratic power brokers saw her as “sincere but naïve. They thought her indefatigability and grassroots understanding of the district was more old-fashioned than practical.”

Vuich won a narrow victory and remembered the “shock” of her arrival in the august chambers. “All the fellows would look over their glasses and wonder, ‘How did she get here?’” Her male colleagues called her “our little lady,” or “Rosie,” and she’d lecture them about the importance of California agriculture. Often, she would tell school girls, “When someone tells you a woman can’t [succeed in politics], just remember the name of California’s first woman senator.”

Whenever a colleague would kick off a floor speech with, “Gentlemen of the Senate,” Vuich would ring a small porcelain bell she kept at her desk to remind everyone that a lady was in the house, as well. The Senate was so unprepared for Vuich’s arrival, and Diane Watson’s two years later, that it had to convert a storeroom into a women’s restroom and lounge off the Senate floor. Today, it is still called the “Rose Room.”

Even before Gonzalez’s victory, the old-fashioned Senate – which still eschews electronic voting in favor of time-consuming voice voting – has exhibited a recent progressive streak when it comes to gender politics.  Last year, San Diego’s Toni Atkins became the first woman and openly LGBTQ member to lead the Legislature’s upper house, and three women have led the Senate’s Republican caucus in recent years.

Orange County Sen. Patricia Bates, a former social worker and one of those previous caucus leaders, believes women bring a better sense of balance to elective politics. She says they tend to be more consensus oriented than men, particularly if many of them had previously taken lead roles in raising a family. “When you have kids that are always fighting or bickering you say, ‘Don’t tell me whose fault it was. What’s the problem here and how do we solve it?’”

Women also elevate issues that otherwise might be given short shrift – from gender equality and child care, for example, to women’s healthcare issues and social justice.

Despite the rejuvenated women’s movement and recent electoral gains, achieving full parity in the Legislature will not be easy. Sen. Bates, for one, believes many women find the current confrontational political arena – exacerbated by social media – distasteful. “It exposes women to a whole level of potential animus that they never expected in their lives.”

Generally, women also continue to lag behind men in their ability to raise campaign funds for Senate contests that typically cost $1 million or more. “Women have a tougher time asking for money and seeing themselves as potential candidates,” Liz Fuller, a consultant to the Legislative Women’s Caucus, has noted.

And then there’s the issue of term limits, particularly in the larger, higher-turnover Assembly. Originally enacted in 1990, term limits forced Assemblymembers out of office after six years (eight years in the Senate). This created a spate of open seats and enhanced the ability of women and other outsiders to win elections without having to challenge well-entrenched incumbents.

A 2012 voter-approved change, however, allows officeholders to remain in one legislative house for a longer period. The result is that not a single Assemblymember will be forced out of office by term limits until 2024, at the earliest, giving women fewer opportunities to gain significant ground.

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