Post-Stupak, California Will Test Political Women

Thursday, March 25, 2010

California's U.S. Senate and governor races are seeing bids by three women: Boxer, Fiorina and Whitman. Women are also running for statewide offices, meaning 2010 might be a high-water mark for political women.

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Sen. Barbara Boxer speaks out at a pro-choice rally on Capitol Hill.The inrush of female candidates throughout California recalls the national scene of 1992.

In that year, four women were elected to the U.S. Senate, tripling the number of existing members already in the upper house. It was the year that California senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, Patty Murray (Washington) and Carol Moseley Braun (Illinois) were elected, along with 24 first-term female Representatives. It became known as the "year of the woman."

The impetus for this sudden surge was likely the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. In October of 1991, when Anita Hill testified about her sexual harassment experiences with Thomas, millions of Americans sat riveted before their TV sets. Angry and frustrated women organized. Pink buttons sprang onto lapels with the logo "I believe Anita Hill."

Hearings Symbolized Lack of Power

Rep. Barbara Boxer and six of her House colleagues marched up the steps of the Senate to protest the actions of the Judiciary Committee. The hearings, with their all-male member committee, symbolized the lack of power and representation women had in the U.S. Congress.

The number of women in elective office has not increased significantly since that heady, high-water year.

Nationally, women hold only 24 percent of state legislative offices and 23 percent of statewide offices. In the U.S. Senate women hold 17 percent of the seats and in the House of Representatives the percentage is a tiny bit lower--16.8 percent--but when you round it off, it's ditto.

Since 1992, the number of women in the U.S. Senate has gone from six to only 17 members.

California has two women in the U.S. Senate, but numbers are down throughout the state. It currently has only 33 or 27.5 percent women in the state legislature, six of whom will be termed out in 2010, according to California List. Only one woman holds statewide office: Secretary of State Debra Bowen.

Term limits and the pattern of women running at a later age have slowed the number of women in the political pipeline.

Mary Hughes, nationally-known California political consultant, has created The 2012 Project in partnership with the Center for American Women and Politics, at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., to achieve gender balance in elective office.

The project will target women over 45 years of age from underrepresented fields and industries to run for state legislatures and Congress and connect them to existing resources ready to help them become successful candidates.

The Clarence Thomas hearings may not have produced long-term change, but efforts like the Stupak amendment might result in more women running for office.

Watch and see. This year California will be a testing ground.

Susan Rose served eight years on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.

She is a former executive director of the Los Angeles City Commission on the Status of Women and member of the California Fair Employment and Housing Commission, the state civil rights agency. She writes about local government and women and politics.

For more information:

California List

Facts on Women Officeholders, Candidates and Voters, Center for American Women and Politics

Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas Hearings

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