YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

California and the West

Women to Play Largest Role Ever in Legislature

Politics: For the first time, California climbs above national average in female representatives. Change may be reflected in nature of legislation.


SACRAMENTO — The dinner was a tribute to eight "retiring Democratic senators" who, niceties aside, were being booted out of office by term limits.

But anyone who read the invitation carefully knew that the $1,000-a-head cost of the farewell would enrich a fund seeking to boost women candidates into the very seats opened up by those "retirements."

That irony was not lost on state Sen. Dede Alpert, organizer and emcee of the August event and founder of the new Democratic Women Leaders Fund.

"When we said our goodbyes this year, the people retiring had 250 years of service to the Legislature," said Alpert (D-Coronado). "Truthfully, I don't support term limits, but it has given women opportunities in the Senate."

When the 1999-2000 session begins, California will have a record 10 women senators--nine Democrats, one Republican--up from six last year and now a quarter of the state's more powerful, and entrenched, legislative body.

The California Assembly, meanwhile, will retain its numbers of the previous session: 20, also a quarter of that house.

It marks the first time California, once a women's-movement hothouse, has jumped above the national average for women legislators. And that milestone is expected to significantly alter the kinds of bills that are introduced.

Because all of the newcomers are Democrats--thanks in part to Alpert's unprecedented fund-raising--and because the new governor is a Democrat too, those bills are considered likely to pass.

With women as a driving force, Californians may even witness the resolution of such meaty issues as health maintenance organization reform and improved public child care, as well as smaller strides: one-stop clinics for women with AIDS, for instance, and an increase in after-school tutoring.

"Women are focused on the issues that impact the everyday person's day-to-day life: child care, welfare reform, after-school care, education," said Elizabeth McCallum, director of the Women's Appointment Project, a parallel effort to bring more women into Gov.-elect Gray Davis' administration. "Maybe that is a sexist thing to say, but it's true."

Although Democratic men in the upper house have been solid "yes" votes for such issues, Senate Leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) said they have been far less likely to propose bills.

"People bring to the Legislature their life's experiences, their biases," he said. "To that extent, maybe I never would've thought of it, but when somebody raises the issue, I say, 'Of course!' "

As Jackie Speier, one of the newly elected senators, put it: "If you don't walk in high heels, it's hard to appreciate what it's like."

As an assemblywoman, Speier sponsored a watershed bill to reduce charges for dry cleaning women's clothes so that they match that for men's. After a two-year hiatus from the Legislature, the Bay Area Democrat intends to renew efforts to require health plans to cover birth control--a bill that once passed but was vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson.

Neither she nor any of the women who will serve with her in the Senate intend to limit themselves to so-called women's issues. But they say those issues will be a significant part of their platforms.

They have a foundation. California's female legislators have previously nudged male colleagues to focus on child care in welfare reform, increase maternity hospital stays, enforce child support laws and require University of California clinical trials to reflect the state's population, which is half female.

Nationwide, the number of women serving in state legislatures has grown slowly, from 4% in 1969 to 22% today, according to the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University.

California Trails Others in Numbers

California's full-time Legislature has consistently trailed such flagship states as Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, where the less grueling schedules and more rapid turnover of part-time legislatures have long attracted women. It still dawdles far behind Washington state, where women are almost half the Senate.

Reasons for California's laggardly pace include the state's size, which complicates leaving family at home for a trip to the statehouse. The lack of term limits until 1990 also played a pivotal role.

"The California Legislature is so prestigious and so powerful and so professional that before term limits, its legislators tended to be in there for the long term," said Beth Reingold, who teaches political science and women's studies at Emory University in Atlanta.

Alpert had grown impatient with merely applauding as the number of women senators crept up from one: Rose Ann Vuich, elected 22 years ago. Taking a page from the national Emily's List political action committee, formed in 1985 to support abortion-rights candidates, Alpert jump-started the California Women Leaders Fund last year with her own campaign money.

Fund Provided More Political Muscle

Los Angeles Times Articles