Building Political Power: 4 Keys to Electing Women

Women Summit photo
Betsy Cotton addressing the Women’s Policy Summit 2014 in Sacramento

When it comes to women’s representation shaping public policy in the state legislature, California is on a backward slide and in danger of dipping even lower in the 2014 election.  A decade ago, women made up nearly 31% of the California Legislature now we are treading water at 26%.

Research tells us there are many reasons women don’t run – family obligations, loss of privacy, the negativity of elections – to name a few. There are several affirmative steps that could stop the slide if leaders and institutions were serious about achieving gender equity. Consider these:

Recruitment:  The biggest reason for the small number of women in office is that not enough women run. There are plenty of talented, accomplished women who would serve if asked. Research shows that unlike men who will jump into a race, women respond positively to being asked. close the gap CA was formed to do recruiting, and recruiting only. We look for the best opportunities – winnable open seats, work with local activists to identify talented progressive women and with the help of women who have served, recruit these women to run. Recruiting alone won’t get us to parity, but more of it will get us back on track.

Political Parties:  Legislative leaders in the parties also influence who runs and who doesn’t. Isn’t it about time parity be a central mission of both parties? Adopt specific goals – number or percentage – of female candidates fielded and supported in each election cycle. More than 100 countries have adopted affirmative measures to ensure more equitable gender representation in their legislative bodies, many through policies instituted in their political party system. Parity will not happen magically. Electing women needs to be a priority supported by those in party and legislative leadership, and women in the party should hold their leaders accountable.

Institutional Barriers in the Legislature:  Modest pay.  No childcare.  Long and erratic session hours.  Unpredictable schedule.   Constant deadlines.  It’s no wonder women are not jumping at the chance to run for office. You have to be Superwoman to make life in the legislature and family life work.  How about California adopting family-friendly rules and procedures to meet the needs of women who want to serve?  Historically, most women have waited until their children were grown to seek office. We need public service to be an option for all women.

Institutional barriers in Elections:  Research shows that women candidates fare better in elections that include multi-member districts as opposed to the primary mode of electing representatives (i.e. single member districts with winner take all voting).  In fact, six of the top ten states with the most women serving in their legislatures have at least one chamber where multiple members represent a district. One explanation for this may be simply that multi-member districts produce multiple winners giving women and non-majority candidates a better chance at finishing among the top vote getters. Another is that running a gender-balanced slate may be seen as more politically attractive. Ranked Choice voting, used in several Bay Area cities, is also believed to help level the playing field for women and non-majority candidates. With Ranked Choice voting, it behooves candidates to run a positive campaign. These types of elections may be more inviting to women interested in serving but turned off by negative campaigning.

Women’s advocates have tried many ways to increase political power, from chaining themselves to gates, to enduring hunger strikes, to standing on the floor of a state legislature and speaking to the reproductive health needs of the state’s women for nearly twelve hours. No one said it would be easy. To truly succeed in increasing women’s political power, barriers must come down and more women must run. To speed progress, we need to adopt a combination of both voluntary and mandatory measures.  Then we have a shot at knowing what men and women working together can do to achieve a more fair and just California.
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Q&A with Delaine Eastin, CTGCA

By Ruth RachelDWMC-webheader-corrected
Re-posted from

Background: Delaine Eastin, former California State Superintendent of Public Instruction from 1995-2003, was the first and only woman in history to be elected to that position. She has a rich and extensive biography, with a life dedicated to the education of our youth, and through her work in the California State Assembly, she advanced the values that women share. Delaine spoke with Ruth Rachel about close the gap CA, an organization dedicated to electing more women to the California State legislature. Ruth is President of the Democratic Women of Monterey County.


Q: Tell us about close the gap and your duties as President.
A: As a political science instructor in the 1970’s I became aware of the lack of women in political life. Later, as a city councilwoman in Union City in 1980, I saw that having a council majority of women on our city council changed Union City and strengthened the governance. We collaborated with the school district to focus on attendance in the high school using our police department. At the time, the men on the council were not in support of this action. They said attendance was a school district problem. We succeeded beyond all expectations with James Logan High School becoming one of the top 10 feeder schools for affirmative action to UC Berkeley; the teen pregnancy rate dropped and the day time crime rate dropped 33%. Although the men on the council eventually came around, it was the women on the council who saw a problem and took action.


A study by the Hunt Family Foundation shows that when a governing body like Parliament or a legislature gets more than 30% women, the women fundamentally change public policy for the better. We have been investing in the wrong stuff, like expensive wars as an example at the national level, and a Cadillac prison system at the state level, arguably because of a paucity of women in our governing bodies.


Close the gap, along with other efforts, i.e.CA Women Lead, EMILY’s List, and others, help to elect women. Close the gap is primarily dedicated to supporting Progressive candidates running for the legislature across California. I like and support men, but all things being equal, I support women. Women tend to have a more common sense approach to issues and problems and they know budgets are statements of values. To have dropped to 49th in per pupil spending when we are number ONE in per prisoner expenditures says a lot. We must get more women to the table, and because of term limits, the elections of 2014 and 2016 are especially important.


I was nominated to be President of the Board of close the gap CA and am happy to do it. I will be working with and supporting other like-minded organizations, and will be looking for women to run who show promise and are well grounded, intelligent and have integrity. Today, too many politicians are getting our priorities wrong. Women got the vote in California in 1911. When I went to the legislature in 1986, I was only the 33rd woman in history to serve in the legislature. I remain the first and only woman to be Superintendent of Public Instruction. This abysmal record needs to change!


Delaine EastinQ: Why do you think it is important we have more women legislators?
A: Budgets are a statement of values, and budgets of too many male legislators tend to support wars and militarism. Women tend to care more about families, education, health care, reproductive rights and infrastructure. Women tend to be more prudent as to how to use taxpayer monies—they are more likely to pay as you go. I have also seen and participated in great collaboration among women legislators, and in my career, have received fabulous support from other women and some fine men. Having said this, in the bigger states and in the bigger races, it is more expensive to run for office today. It is harder for women to raise money, hence the emergence of organizations like Emily’s List, which raises early money for women candidates. 

Early money is very important. Perhaps a reason that women have been under represented in legislatures is that women have often been in careers or have served in roles that are not al well designed to teach fundraising skill. If your job title has been as homemaker, teacher, nurse, you may not have not been in a position to understand or have had access to the process of political fundraising. Women are now in more non-traditional roles, as, for example, bankers and attorneys, and are better positioned to participate in the world of American politics.


Q: What do you see are the key obstacles to women running for political office and how can the DWMC help? 
A: Money and the ability to effectively fundraise are one of the top issues. Women still are often in professions that do not offer political exposure, and the system can work against a women running for office who are not affluent. Some behaviors are accepted in men, but as we all know, are still perceived as a shortcoming in women. If a female candidate is forthcoming, she may be characterized combative while her male counterpart would be characterized as strong. Men are flexible but women are wishy washy. Remember too, women still make 77 cents for every $1 made by men. It is harder for women to make the case to run for office, particularly with young children and issues with child care. 

I believe that any good legislator (woman or man) must possess the following characteristics: honesty, a brass backbone, a capacity for hard work, attention to detail, respectful, play by the rules, be well informed, have vision, heart and have good organizational skills but, most importantly, be committed to serving constituents. All legislators should hire smart, respectful people to work for them.


The DWMC can help women by financially supporting women candidates, directly or by having fundraisers. Assistance in fundraising is probably the most important thing the DWMC can do. Primary dollars are sometimes more important than general dollars for women and specifically Latina women. Depending on the district of course, it cost $550,000 in 1986 to run for state assembly. Today that number could be as high as $1 million to $1.5 million. A race that is statewide (controller) could need $3 million to be $10 million to be successful.


Q: How will close the gap measure success?
A: 2013 to 2016 is an excellent time for women to run for office. Nearly 50% of Assembly and Senate seats will be open from 2014 to 2016. In the last 10 years representation by women has dropped from 31% to 26%. Our goal is to have at least 30% of our state legislators be women by 2016. Because of term limits this a propitious time for women. We are looking for strong progressive women candidates. We are looking for women with courage to speak for the values most women support and families need, and in the words of former Vermont Governor Madeleine Kunin, “Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.”
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A 2014 To-Do List for Women Who Would Like to See More Women in Charge

By Mary Hughes

Reposted from the Huffington Post

American women have been stuck holding 15 to 20% of the top jobs across all sectors for over a decade now: CEO’s, law partners, members of Congress, on boards of directors. Tired of hearing that statistic? In 2014, do something about it.

Suggested New Year’s Resolutions for 2014

1. See something, say something. It’s not just for airports. When a colleague doesn’t get the recognition, raise or promotion because the boss doesn’t “see” her contribution, speak up. Afraid you’ll be tagged a whiner? Then smile while you’re saying, “Before you give Watson and Crick that big research grant, you ought to know that Rosalind Franklin really got that DNA theory started.”

2. Get out of your lane. Many women modulate their voices and limit their range of influence. Even gifted, visible women leaders often confine their views on gender bias to safe audiences. To change the culture, wade into the mainstream and articulate why gender equity is a winner for everyone. Engaging men in the effort to recognize and advance talented women speeds progress.

3. Use the power of your purse. Only saints, geniuses and revolutionaries wield power without access to money. Earn, manage, invest and leverage money to make the changes you want to see. Negotiate. Bargain. Earn more and give more. Give to those who do good (charities and nonprofits) AND those who are advancing opportunity through the political system (PACs and political organizations). Women of wealth can do a great deal to even the power imbalance between men and woman by deploying their wealth purposefully. If time is money, then volunteers are pure gold.

4. Take yourself seriously. Vote. Many women spend years dedicated to family and volunteering in the community, all the while working to provide necessary income.
That may not leave time to become a public advocate, but there is time to become an informed, active citizen. Register to vote online, by mail or in person.

5. Bring others along. Who are you teaching to lead? Ask senior women at work, “What’s your plan to multiply the number of women in management?” At the office, in Congress, on cable news, the participation of women changes the agenda, procedures, content and outcome of decisions. Gender difference has value, but the full value won’t be evident until women at the top ensure that more talented women are coming up behind them.

6. Fill your binders. Nominate. Recruit. Every year, the President, 50 governors, state legislative leaders, mayors and other elected officials fill thousands of board and commission seats that determine public policy by appointing members of the public to serve. These posts are proving grounds and gateways to more prestigious appointed and elected opportunities. No surprise that women are still underrepresented. You always say your friends could run it better. Give them the chance. Nominate them.

7. Give credit. Share success. When you introduce an accomplished woman — to one other person or an audience of 500 — don’t say she’s an empathetic listener or the nicest person ever. Say what she’s done and what you hope she’ll do. “Sue’s just finished groundbreaking research on early childhood brain development and we’re hoping she’ll take over pediatrics at the hospital next year.” Sow seeds of advancement wherever you can.

8. Be generous to successful women. Why are so many of us critical of women who venture something and succeed? So what if Sheryl Sandberg had opportunities and advantages that aided and hastened her success. She made the most of them. Hillary Clinton could raise the money to run for the U.S. Senate because she had been First Lady. Yep, and she still had to go raise it and run the race. Too often, those who step up face a wave of too personal criticism from other women. Just stop.

9. Ask a woman to run for office. Research is clear. More than half the women who serve in state legislatures say they are there because someone they respected asked them to run. Men are comfortable nominating themselves, but women respond to a nudge. When they do run, women are as likely to win as men. Someone is waiting for your call.

10. Run for office. Serving in elective office is the most direct way to make progress on issues you care about. 2014 may be too soon to dive in, but campaigns across the country are live action tutorials on fundraising, organizing and voter communication. Get involved and learn. Nine or 10 states are likely to have women nominees for Governor this year. Some of those women will demonstrate grace and grit. Study them. Then, go be one.

What’s on your to-do list to advance women’s leadership in the new year?
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