WeToo: pushing for gender parity in the California Legislature

Assemblymember Buffy Wicks. Photo by Scott Duncan

On the morning of Election Day 2016, Buffy Wicks figured two momentous events in her life were going to come to fruition that day: the birth of her first child and Hillary Clinton being elected president of the United States.

Spoiler alert – neither of those things happened.

“I had been the state director for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and I thought that my daughter was going to be born the day we elected the first woman president,” Wicks recalls. “Then my daughter was late, which I call her first act of civil disobedience. And obviously Hillary Clinton did not become president.”

Her daughter eventually arrived, but only after Wicks endured three days of intense labor, inducement and finally a C-section. It took a while but the physical pain of the process eventually faded. The emotional pain of Clinton’s loss was a different matter altogether.

“I was in the hospital for a week,” she says. “It was probably the third or fourth day home and I’ve been up all night feeding my kid. No one prepares you for the insanity that is being a new mom. It’s every two or three hours breastfeeding, and we’d had problems with that because the labor, so it was so difficult. And I just remember finally taking a shower and I just started sobbing because all I could think of was, can I be ambitious again? Is that going to be in the cards for me? Will I be able to have the career I want? What is the rest of my life going to look like? It was very jarring and really humbling to be in that moment.”

She wasn’t the only woman out there feeling such a malaise. The number of women holding office in the California Legislature had been stagnant – even declining – since peaking at 37 members in 2006. Going into the 2016 election that number had fallen to 30. Coming out of it there would be only 27 women across both chambers, just 22.5 percent of the total membership.

No female POTUS and fewer women in the Legislature – definitely not where Wicks or many other California women thought things were going on that fateful November day almost seven years ago now.

Going into the 2016 election that number had fallen to 30. Coming out of it there would be only 27 women across both chambers, just 22.5 percent of the total membership.

“We were definitely on an upswing from when I started in the Legislature,” recalls former State Sen. Hannah Beth Jackson, a Santa Barbara Democrat who was one of only six women in the Assembly when she was elected to that chamber in 1998. Which made the backslide all that more disappointing.

“We started having trouble getting women to run for office,” she says. “And that’s a problem because you need your pipeline. You need your farm team.”

There are many reasons observers cite for why women don’t run for office: not feeling qualified, not being comfortable with fundraising, lack of encouragement, and perhaps above all else, the often disproportionate responsibility for caring for family, either children or aging adults.

It is a shared experience that Jackson says helped the often-otherwise intractable partisanship of the building.

“All the women that were in the Legislature, including Republican women, were all united on the issue of child care. Because we all, at some point or another had had this challenge,” Jackson says.

Those issues have certainly not gone away. But a lot has happened since then that has inspired more women to get into the game anyway.

Donald Trump, for one, being everything his detractors feared he would be. The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The ascension of Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S Supreme Court. The court’s 2022 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson that overturned Roe v. Wade, and the subsequent rush by many states to greatly restrict or outright ban abortion. And on and on.

And in spite of it all – or because of it – California women started winning legislative seats again. By 2018 women had climbed back over the 30 threshold, picking up more seats each year until eventually reaching 39 by 2022. And then on Election Day last November, women took 11 seats previously held by men, three in the Senate and eight in the Assembly, bringing the total number of women in the Legislature to 50, or 42 percent of the members. Three of those seats were taken from Republicans, helping ensure Democrats also held super majorities in the both chambers.

“Things are oftentimes years in the making,” says longtime Democratic campaign strategist Katie Merrill. “But in this case, I think the election of Trump in 2016 was a specific turning point, followed by every horrible thing that Trump did that impacted women and women’s health and women’s reproductive rights, culminating in the Dobbs decision. Not only did women start running for office in larger numbers and winning office in larger numbers, they also turned out to vote in larger numbers. And those things are of course all connected.”

Connected and, ultimately, practical.

“Well, for one we represent half the population, so it feels like it’d be fair to be represented in legislative bodies,” says Cassandra Pye, Senior Vice President for Lucas Public Affairs in Sacramento and a former deputy chief of staff for then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But she says more than that is the different ways women approach issues than do men.

“There seems to be not so much a tendency to compromise as much as just to have the conversation together,” Pye says. “And that even if they agree to disagree on some things, the women we’ve engaged with have said they have found it very easy to at least have conversations about things that they can’t agree on.”

Which is critical if you buy the concept that compromise needs to at least start with a conversation.

“Even if they agree to disagree on some things, the women we’ve engaged with have said they have found it very easy to at least have conversations about things that they can’t agree on.”

“At the end of the day, we bring a different leadership style as well,” says Jackson. “Women tend to be more collaborative and have greater emotional intelligence. I think all the data shows that. Granted, that’s a generalization. It’s not universal. But there is something about that collaborative approach to leadership, to governance, whether it’s in the corporate world or in the government sector, that I think is a positive.”

Even with their large gains, however, the number of women in the California Legislature still trails well behind states like New Mexico, Maine, Arizona and, most notably, Nevada and Colorado. Nevada has had a majority female legislature since 2019 and women now comprise 60 percent of the total membership; Colorado women achieved a majority this year before a pair of resignations dropped them back into a straight 50/50 split.

But Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), chair of the Legislative Women’s Caucus, says it is critical to remember that none of those states are as large or diverse as California. A more apples-to-apples comparison would be with those states with full-time legislatures, she says. In that regard, California actually fares quite well.

According to data compiled by the Center for Women in American Politics (CWAP) at Rutgers University in New Jersey, when looking only at states with full-time legislatures – Alaska, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – California (41.7) actually edges Illinois (41.2) for the top spot.

Viewed that way, Skinner says, the rapid increase from 22 percent six years ago to 42 percent today is “pretty impressive.”

“I think there’s a realization that if we do not keep our foot on the pedal that we’re going to backslide, and that for ourselves and for subsequent generations we need to be committed.”

Indeed. And with the wind at their back and scores of seats set to open up in the next few election cycles, Skinner, Women’s Caucus Vice- Chair Cecilia Aguilar-Curry and other advocates for greater gender parity in California politics believe that women could reach 50 percent – or beyond – before the end of the decade.

But Hannah Beth Jackson is here to remind everyone that nothing is a given.

“I think there’s a realization that if we do not keep our foot on the pedal that we’re going to backslide, and that for ourselves and for subsequent generations we need to be committed,” Jackson says. “We need to be assertive. We need to be aggressive in making sure that we have the opportunities that we believe we’re entitled to and that we have been told we are able to pursue. I think these women recognize that it’s not accidental that we’ve lived in a pretty strong patriarchy since virtually the beginning of time. And that if we’re going to change that, we’re the ones that are going to have to change it.”

Nobody has to convince Buffy Wicks. Her existential crisis was very short-lived. A few months after her shower meltdown, Assembly District 15 Representative Tony Thurmond announced he was not going to run for re-election. District 15 – her home district in the East Bay. Even though she had never thought of herself as a possible candidate before, her anger over “the dumpster fire” Trump administration changed everything.

“Nobody encouraged me or said, ‘hey, you should run for office.’ But I’d worked in politics for a long time. I knew how to organize and to raise money. I just thought I had to try.”

In June 2018, she finished first in a field of 12 candidates in the primary, then first again in the November runoff with 54 percent of the vote.

And now Assemblymember Buffy Wicks fervently believes the floodgates could just about be ready to open. In that regard, she sees Donald Trump as the gift that keeps on giving for women like her.

“I’m a legacy of Donald Trump,” she says. “I was so mad when he was elected that I decided to run for office. It spurred me into action in a way that I had never been spurred before. And I think the overreaching of the Supreme Court on abortion could have a similar impact. Women are just pissed off and fed up and frustrated and we’re going to take action. We saw that in the elections results this last year. And as we see the overreaching of the Republican Party on some of the stuff that directly impacts women, there’s going to be more and more women who are like me. Women who say, ‘it’s my turn now.’”

This is the first in a series of CW stories examining the effort to achieve gender parity in the California Legislature. Up next: stories from the front lines.


Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: