Guess Who’s Driving California’s Gender Agenda

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Credit: Courtesy of Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson

California State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson at the signing ceremony of her equal pay legislation, Oct. 6, 2015.

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (WOMENSENEWS)–Does it make sense for women to vote for women?

Usually, yes, if female voters are interested in such gains as legal support for equal pay and a better chance at work-life balance.

The Center for American Women and Politics has documented the work of women in public office since 1971 and their research has shown female legislators carry bills that make a difference in the lives of women and families.

Here in California, legislation sponsored by women for women is occurring all across the state.

State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson is a particularly dynamic force. In the last three years her legislative program has focused on issues affecting women and families including equal pay and paid family leave.

As a result of her efforts, California has the strongest equal-pay law in the country, just signed in October by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Because of Jackson, the state also has a paid-leave program that encompasses a greater number of family members than when originally passed in 2002. In 2013 she sponsored an amendment that expands the definition of family because the original version did not reflect extended-family responsibilities. Now, California workers using state disability insurance (SDI) replacement benefits can take up to six weeks off to care for a seriously ill grandparent, grandchild, sibling or parent-in-law. SDI provides partial wage replacement funded through workers’ contributions to the program. All employees have access to the program as long as they pay into it.

Earlier this year Jackson also pushed through "earn and learn" programs" that provide training and compensation for women who need employment and expanded jurisdiction (off campus) for community colleges dealing with sexual assault cases because most students do not reside on campus.

Other female state lawmakers have also been active carrying bills during the past two years in the areas of poverty, child care, flexible scheduling, lactation accommodations, gender violence and child abuse reporting for day care centers.

A Key Victory

A key legislative victory occurred in 2014 when Assembly Member Nancy Skinner introduced legislation that created a stronger protocol for collecting and processing DNA from rape kits. The bill’s language specifies that a rape kit be submitted to a laboratory "within 20 days after it is booked into evidence." DNA samples must then be uploaded to CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) "no later than 120 days after initially receiving the evidence."

Taking a fiscal route, State Sen. Holly Mitchell lobbied to stave off budget cuts for services for families in poverty including child care, early education and health care. Her efforts resulted in a budget with a return of 67 percent of previous funding cuts ($673 million dollars).

Some of the legislative action is occurring outside the state legislature.

In San Francisco and Los Angeles, local Commissions on the Status of Women are leading efforts to implement principles of the U.N.’s global women’s rights treaty, which has been signed but not yet ratified by the U.S. The treaty is known as CEDAW, which stands for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

In 1998, San Francisco was the first city in the country to adopt the principles of CEDAW. Since then, it has used the CEDAW framework of gender analysis to reduce domestic-violence homicide, establish police protocols for domestic violence and child abuse, form community coalitions to eliminate human trafficking and support flexible and predictable work schedules.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a gender-equity directive this year that requires all city departments to submit a "Gender Equity Action Plan" to him by February 2016. The plans must address considerations such as equal pay, policies for recruitment and promotion, contracting opportunities for female-owned businesses and under-representation in certain job categories.

Departments will have their own initiatives and collect data. Araceli Campos, past president of the L.A. City Commission on the Status of Women, predicts these plans will produce "a sweeping variety of positive outcomes with impact for years to come."

Grassroots Politics

Plenty of politics is also taking place at the grass roots, through nonprofit organizations and legislative forums. One shining example is the Women’s Policy Institute, which was founded by the Women’s Foundation of California and provides a year-long training program for female activists to learn and engage in the legislative process in Sacramento.

In 12 years, Women’s Policy Institute fellows have helped pass 24 new laws in the areas of women’s health, safety and economic prosperity. One recent example is the "Alternative Custody Program," authored by Sen. Carol Liu. It allows incarcerated women to serve some of their time in community-based programs while reuniting with their families.

Another source of legislative activity is the . This annual policy forum held in Sacramento was conceived in 2013 by Kate Karpilow, executive director of the California Center for Research on Women and Families.

Each year, more than 500 women attend the summit, which generates legislative proposals for hearing and comments during the conference. The forum is an educational opportunity for participants but it also conveys the priorities of the women’s rights community to legislators. The 2015 agenda included sessions on poverty and economic empowerment, child care, minimum wage, paid family leave and flexible scheduling. Its purpose is to "translate research into action."

Few states have experienced as much legislative activity led by women as California. Action is ongoing in Sacramento, where Jackson chairs the bipartisan California Women’s Caucus and has a proactive agenda. Next year, the caucus will emphasize child care programs.

Women concerned about gender equity and their quality of life may find California a place to live with greater opportunity.

For that, female lawmakers and activists have been pivotal. And more female leadership is needed. The number of women in state elective office has "either stagnated or decreased," according to California Women Lead. The percentage of female state legislators is 30 percent in the State Senate and 23.7 percent in the State Assembly. Two women out of six hold state constitutional offices.

"We need more women to run for office and more women to serve in the legislature," Jackson recently told me in an interview with Calbuzz, the state’s notorious political blog. "I believe our state will be stronger for it."

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