In 1992, California sent Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer to the U.S. Senate, where they joined two newly elected women from other states and two female incumbents in a watershed moment the national media dubbed “The Year of the Woman.”
Despite women attaining a record 20 Senate seats and being more broadly represented throughout the political spectrum today, holding public office remains a predominately male career path.
Even on L.A.’s progressive Westside, the top lawmakers are men: retiring Rep. Henry Waxman (D- Beverly Hills), state Sen. Ted Lieu (D- Torrance), Assemblyman Steven Bradford (D- Gardena), L.A. County Supervisors Don Knabe and Zev Yaroslavsky, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin.
In what could become our Year of the Woman in local politics, the June primary election ballot features strong female candidates in races for Congress, both houses of the California Legislature and an open seat on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors — women who in many cases are outpacing their male counterparts in campaign fundraising.
Former Los Angeles City Controller Wendy Greuel has emerged alongside Lieu as a frontrunner to succeed Waxman in the House, and Marianne Williamson has led the pack in fundraising with a campaign war chest exceeding $1 million.
The field of candidates for the 26th California Senate District seat includes former Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, Manhattan Beach Mayor Amy Howorth and attorney Sandra Fluke, who came to national prominence in 2012 when a male-dominated House of Representatives committee blocked her from testifying on women’s reproductive rights.
Civil rights attorney Simona Farrise and economic development consultant Autumn Burke are in what appears to be a tight battle for the 62nd Assembly District seat, and former state Sen. Sheila Kuehl is one of two presumed favorites in the race to replace termed-out Yaroslavsky. If elected, Kuehl would be only the third woman to serve on the Board of Supervisors.
West Los Angeles Democratic Club President Cara Robin said the area has previously elected many significant female legislators and will likely do so again.
“We on the Westside of Los Angeles have been very fortunate to have had an exemplary tradition of progressive women representing us over the years,” said Robin, listing Secretary of State Debra Bowen, the late state Sen. Jenny Oropeza, Butler and former state Sen. Fran Pavley among them.
Boxer takes encouragement in seeing so many women once again seeking office on the Westside.
“We will never have a truly representative government until women and minorities are well represented at every political level,” wrote Boxer in an email to The Argonaut last week. “I am heartened to see many more women getting engaged in what was formerly a man’s domain.”
‘Not good enough’
A two-term member of the L.A. City Council before serving as City Controller from 2009 to 2013, Greuel said women remain significantly underrepresented at the national level.
“Congress is only 18% women. That’s not good enough for me,” said Greuel, 52. “When we see the issues that are facing Congress and our state and local area, a lot of them are women’s issues — family issues. Women still make 77 cents on the dollar [compared to men]. We have a war on women’s reproductive rights. We have a war on the family’s ability to survive and to be able to have a good-paying wage to put food on the table.”
Joining the race to replace Waxman “was really a gut reaction,” said Greuel, who campaigned last year to become mayor of Los Angeles.
Federal Elections Commission records updated last month tallied roughly $672,000 in campaign fundraising for Greuel, a Democrat — slightly ahead of Lieu and third overall behind Williamson and Venice attorney and entrepreneur David Kanuth, also a Democrat, who had raised about $800,000.
Williamson, a former Democrat turned Independent and one of a few candidates to enter the race before Waxman’s retirement announcement, had raised $986,000 and loaned herself another $92,000.
“We need more women in politics, but what we really need are more women who are not entrenched in the current political system,” said Williamson, a public lecturer and self-help author who has had four books on The New York Times best-seller list.
Williamson — who calls for reducing corporate influence in politics and protection of civil liberties while taking aim at partisan gridlock — has made frequent public appearances throughout the congressional district. A Williamson rally on Monday at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills features Alanis Morissette performing a campaign song she wrote for Williamson.
“Mine is a grassroots campaign,” said Williamson, 61. “I think there is a general dissatisfaction with the political status quo. Democracy is being dismantled right before our very eyes. I feel that I’m speaking to that message and it is being heard.”
Barbara Mulvaney, an international human rights attorney and Playa del Rey native, has trailed in fundraising but had amassed more than $120,000 last month.
Mulvaney, 62, served as lead prosecutor at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, pioneered efforts to prosecute domestic violence and was a deputy director of constitutional and legislative affairs for the U.S. State Dept. under President Obama.
“It’s important to hear a woman’s voice in government, especially on international security issues as well as on issues here at home,” said Mulvaney, who now lives in Santa Monica.
Making the difficult choices
Butler, who worked as a Clinton administration Dept. of Commerce official, was elected to the state Assembly in 2008 and again in 2010 before losing her seat to former Santa Monica City Councilman Richard Bloom in 2012 by a razor-thin margin.
She initially declared an Assembly run but trained her sights on the state Senate after Lieu decided to run for Congress.
“I’ve lived in the district for over 20 years,” said Butler, 50, who resides in Marina del Rey. “I know the territory and I know about the issues that constituents of the 26th District care about.”
Butler’s legislative work on the environment, equal rights and elder care illustrate her priorities, she said.
Leading the fundraising battle, however, is Howorth, who also entered the race due to the political musical chairs effect of Waxman’s retirement announcement.
“As a mayor, I know how decisions from Sacramento can affect local communities,” said Howorth, 49, a former photo editor for Wired magazine and mother of two. “I’ve had to make difficult decisions as mayor, some that even my best friends don’t agree with.”
The only woman on the Manhattan Beach City Council, Howorth said having more women in public office gives government a more diverse set of viewpoints and problem-solving skills.
“We all have different experiences, and that’s always valuable in representative government,” Howorth said. “If we truly have a representative government, ideally we’d have over 50% women.”
A longtime legislative advocate on women’s rights issues, Fluke comes to the race with the notoriety of having stood up to attacks by far-right pundits after she decried House Republicans for stifling the female perspective on women’s reproductive issues.
For many women, the sequence of events pointed up the need for more women in elected office.
“I don’t think that particular moment when I took on Rush Limbaugh and other conservative commentators is what qualifies me to run for office, it’s the 10 years of legislative advocacy that qualifies me. But that moment is an example of what my leadership looks like, what my character looks like. Folks can turn to that and see I’m someone who’s not going to back down even when there are difficult personal consequences,” said Fluke, 33, who spoke at the 2012 National Democratic Convention.
Fluke, who initially contemplated a bid for Congress, said that many of the pressing issues facing Californians are rooted in women’s issues — including efforts to combat human trafficking and sexual assaults on college campuses as well as early childhood education and affordable child care.
“Disproportionally it ends up being women whose careers are impacted when they don’t have access to child care. That’s important for the educational futures of our kids, but also for families to pursue careers that provide economic stability,” she said.
‘The best and brightest’
The local Assembly race is largely a contest between two women who are first-time office seekers, while the race for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Third District seat features one prominent female and one prominent male candidate.
Assembly candidates Farrise and Burke, who have separated themselves from the pack in terms of campaign spending and voter outreach, say the plethora of female candidates in their race and others this election cycle is worth noting.
“What our communities need, what our state needs, are the best and brightest wherever they are found. But it’s important to recognize that women bring something different to the table,” said Farrise, 48, whom Newsweek named in a 2011 list of the nation’s top attorneys.
“Women, and I don’t just mean in a caregiver way, have taken care of children, have taken care of elders and have really held the trust of what is going to make a family, a community, a tribe, if you will, healthy,” said Farrise, a Westchester resident. “I’m the mother of three children, and my thinking about any variety of substantive issues is put through the lense of potentially making decisions for my daughter, for my son, for my mother.”
Burke, 40 and a resident of Marina del Rey, comes to the race a scion of an influential family in Los Angeles politics. But the daughter of former Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke and former Coastal Commission President William Burke said she has worked hard to stake out her own political identity in a race without a well-known candidate.
“As proud as I am of my parents, it’s been important to me for the voters to get to know me and what I stand for,” Burke said.
Farrise had raised roughly $330,000 for her campaign and Burke $320,000 as of May 8, according to California Secretary of State records. But Burke’s bid for office had also benefitted from about $340,000 in independent expenditures on mailers and other outreach, according to records.
“It’s incredibly important that women’s voices are represented at every level,” said Burke. “No one should vote for someone just because they’re a woman, but luckily we have a series of very intelligent women who have proven they are smart and really committed to the community, and that’s why you vote for someone.”
If elected to the Board of Supervisors, Kuehl would become only the third woman to serve in Los Angeles County’s highest office.
Kuehl, 73, touts 14 years of state legislative experience spanning both houses of the California Legislature.
“The kind of experience that I have really matters, not experience on a part-time city council that some of my opponents have,” Kuehl said.
Kuehl, a child actor turned attorney turned officeholder, had raised about $800,000 for her campaign as of May 6, according to the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder. Former Santa Monica City Councilman Bobby Shriver had raised nearly $1 million, including $300,000 of his own money.
Burke said gender balance in the halls of power is essential for good government.
“I just can’t imagine a legislative body that can properly perform without truly representing the community,” Burke said. “There aren’t enough women in politics, and we’re getting ready to fix this.”
Closing the gender gap
As the saying goes, you can’t win if you don’t play. The gender imbalance in American politics, according to a recent academic study, may largely be the result of too few women choosing to run for office.
In a 2012 report titled “Men Rule,” Loyola Marymount University associate professor of political science Richard Fox and American University associate professor of government Jennifer Lawless examined the persistent under-representation of women in higher office.
“Study after study finds that when women run for office, they perform just as well as their male counterparts. No differences emerge in women’s and men’s fundraising receipts, vote totals, or electoral success. Yet women remain severely unrepresented in U.S. political institutions,” Fox and Lawless wrote.
“We argue that the fundamental reason for women’s under-representation is that they do not run for office. There is a substantial gender gap in political ambition; men tend to have it, and women don’t,” the report concluded.
According to the report, women are more likely than men to perceive the political landscape as highly competitive and biased against them, “much less likely than men to think they are qualified for political office” and far less often encouraged to seek political careers, even by their mothers and other women.
But in a follow-up report last year (this one titled “Girls Just Wanna Not Run,” a play on the song “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”), Fox and Lawless did find a ray of hope in that more women — especially young women — are now beginning to consider entering politics, according to a survey of college students.
“Given the emergence of over the past 10 years of high-profile women in politics such as Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, the landscape of U.S. looks to be changing. Perhaps young woman now are just as motivated as young men to enter the electoral arena,” they wrote.
Williamson has made her own contribution toward getting more women involved in politics. After the 2012 presidential election, she sponsored Sister Giant, a series of seminars designed to attract women to politics and offer their leadership skills in order to run for public office.
Fluke said voters also have a role to play.
“We’re making progress in having women step forward and run, but we have to make more progress than that. We have to elect them,” Fluke said. “We have to make sure that we have diverse voices in our government at every level. If the government doesn’t look like the people, do we truly have a democracy?”
Managing Editor Joe Piasecki contributed to this report.