At a recent PPIC event celebrating the centennial year of women in California’s statehouse, female legislators shared stories of how they broke through the political glass ceiling.
The session opened with a conversation between Toni Atkins, the first woman and first openly LGBTQ leader of the state senate, and Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of PPIC. Their talk ranged from the professional to the personal.
Atkins listed her top legislative priorities as emergency services and disaster preparedness. It’s a “new normal” we have to grapple with, she added. Atkins also wants to continue her focus on housing and homelessness, which she called a “humanitarian crisis.”
When Baldassare asked how the #MeToo movement might change the Sacramento culture, Atkins said change “doesn’t happen overnight” but that she wants “more than anything not to lose this moment, because . . . it may not come again for some time.”
Key to Atkins’s leadership style is to listen well and value other points of view. California has a progressive bent, but in today’s political climate, “we’ve left some voices behind,” she said.
This centennial offers a reminder that women remain underrepresented in the legislature. Although they comprise more than half of California’s likely voters (53%), they make up just 23% of its legislators. A panel of lawmakers discussed that imbalance in a conversation moderated by New York Times correspondent Jennifer Medina.
Becky Morgan, a state senator from 1985 to 1993, recalled setting up the first committee on early childhood. She was also the first female legislator to wear pants on the senate floor. It wasn’t an act of protest—it was simply “a cold January morning,” Morgan said, drawing laughter from the audience.
State senator Janet Nguyen recounted her stint as the first woman to chair the Orange County Board of Supervisors and the first to lead its meetings while pregnant—which “shocked” a few supervisors, she said. Despite the daily challenge of balancing work and family, Nguyen said, “I’m not going to give up family or career. I want both!”
All the panelists agreed that gender diversity was essential to effective state leadership. State senator Nancy Skinner agreed that we need more family-friendly policies in the state, but she emphasized that women should also champion issues related to their areas of expertise—in her case, criminal justice reform and climate change. Her view on women serving in the legislature? “It’s just right,” she argued—which led to sustained applause.