How to get more women in California’s political leadership

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Last week, Republicans in California’s state Senate chose Jean Fuller as their new leader. When Fuller takes over as Senate GOP leader this fall, she’ll be the first woman from either party to hold a leadership position in that chamber, and three out of four of the top leaders in the state legislature will be women. The others–who are already on the job–are Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (a Democrat) and Assembly GOP leader Kristin Olsen.

Just how significant is it to have this many women in positions of power in the state capitol? We asked executive director of California Women Lead, Rachel Michelin.

Rachel Michelin: I think it is very significant, especially as we’ve seen a trend in terms of the number of women serving in the state legislature either remaining stagnant or actually decreasing. To have the visibility about the important roles that women can play, particularly in leadership, it’s very important. I think it sets an example. I think it shows what women can accomplish. I think it will be very interesting to see the dynamic where now President pro tem Kevin De Leon will be in a position where women have been in for many years, being the only man in the room with three other women. So I think that photo will be very interesting to see and I think it’s very empowering to women who are considering public service.

KCRW:  Do you expect to see or are we seeing already a change in the legislature’s priorities? Will we see more debate more focus on issues like family leave birth control children’s health that kind of thing?

RM:  I think you do. I know minority leader [Kristin] Olson was talking about childcare and the importance of providing childcare. I think women bring to the policy discussion a different perspective. You know, minority leader Olson is a mom she has three children. She’s balancing what so many women are doing across the state of California are doing –  trying to do well in your career, but then also be a great mom in raising your children. I think they bring those perspectives and it’s just a different way of approaching the issues. And I think you’ll see more bipartisanship as well. Women tend to really try to figure out, how are we going to solve the problem? As opposed to trying to play politics with some of the issues.

KCRW: How big an impact could that have at a time when the state is wrestling with some really big issues like water and energy?

RM: I think it’s incredibly important. You know one of the things you often see is, the three of them together will spend a lot of time educating their constituents, which now is the entire state of California, about some of these important issues. I think empowering members of the caucuses to get out there and really get input from their constituents and bring it back to the state. I think it will make a big difference because we have so many important issues facing California. And I think their leadership style is probably what we need at this point in time.

The reality though too is speaker [Toni] Atkins and the minority leader Olson are termed out in 2016. And so the question is, are they going to be able to inspire other women within their caucuses to take on those leadership positions? Because whoever does become the speaker of the assembly or the leader of the minority party, they will probably be there for at least ten years. So while I find it’s great to be talking about the strides that women are making right now, what it is it going to look like after the 2016? We have twelve women that are termed out of office. Are we going to have strong women willing to step up in line so that we can continue this momentum that we’re seeing?