Majority of States Have Been Governed by a Woman—Why Not California?

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A mosaic of the seal of the State of California in the ferry building in San Francisco. Public domain photo

By Ben Christopher | CALmatters

Texas has done it. So have Kansas, Alabama, Oklahoma and North and South Carolina. Arizona has done it four times.

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All told, more than half of all states have had at least one female governor, and 24 have elected them.

But California? See if you can spot the pattern.

In 1990, Dianne Feinstein ran for governor against Republican U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson. She lost, the political analysts at the time said, because of low name recognition and an “unfocused” campaign.

Four years later, Kathleen Brown (sister of Governor Jerry, daughter of Governor Pat) challenged Wilson. Despite an early lead in the polls, she flamed out in the final months—the consequence, observers said, of rising anti-immigrant sentiment, a tough national environment for Democrats, and, again, “critical miscalculations” on the campaign trail.

Flash forward to 2010 and Meg Whitman, a billionaire tech tycoon, squared off against a second round Jerry Brown. Whitman had plenty of money, but alas, she was a Republican in 21st century California who never quite “connected with voters.”

Bad campaigning, bad policies, bad timing. These are convincing explanations for why each of these women never made it to the governor’s mansion. But the fact remains that every time a woman has made it to the top of the ticket in a gubernatorial race, she has lost.

If nothing else, it’s a startling contradiction. California is supposed to be the vanguard of social change.

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But at least by one metric, we’re downright retrograde. We’ve never elected a female lieutenant governor either (Mona Pasquil served for less than six months, but she was appointed). Only nine women have been elected to one of the statewide constitutional offices. Of the 120 lawmakers in the California Legislature, 26 are women, the lowest number since 1998.

Go local and the problem persists. The city halls of San Francisco and Los Angeles have served as farm teams for state-level office and beyond. But San Francisco has only had two women executives—one, Dianne Feinstein, took office after her predecessor was assassinated, the other, London Breed, was appointed after the death Mayor Ed Lee, only to be stripped of power 42 days later. Los Angeles has never had a woman as its chief executive.

Given the recent and ongoing wave of sexual misconduct allegations against men in public office, those statistics are particularly striking.

“We would not have these sexual harassment challenges in the state Legislature, in corporate boardrooms and in businesses, or in the entertainment industry, if there were more women on the top,” said Wendy Greuel, who ran to be mayor of Los Angeles in 2013 and lost to Eric Garcetti. Greuel now sits on the boards of both Emily’s List and Emerge California, two liberal organizations that encourage and assist women candidates. “Women would have someone to go to if they experience it— and for the men, they’d understand that there are women watching.”

In part, California’s male dominated politics is just a consequence of scale, said Democrat Delaine Eastin, the only woman with a credible campaign for governor in 2018.

“The bigger the state the harder it is to elect a woman,” she said. “It is harder to be visible. You can be, you just have to work harder.”

She should know. Despite having served as both a member of the state Assembly between 1986 and 1994 and as statewide Superintendent of Public Instruction between 1995 and 2003, Eastin barely registers on public opinion polls. During this season’s campaign she predictably delivers some of the biggest applause lines, but according to a recent poll, 56 percent of Californians have never heard of her.

In fact, the states where women currently serve as governor make up an ideological grab bag, but they do skew small: Alabama, Iowa, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island. This isn’t an ironclad rule—populous Texas and New Jersey have previously opted to be governed by females. But other biggies such as New York, Illinois and Florida join the Golden State in never having elected a woman to the top spot.

California may be progressive and cutting edge. But it’s also enormous. The demands placed upon a candidate for executive, statewide office—the name recognition, the money, the connections, all of which women candidates may have a harder time developing—are also enormous.

This on top of the many “extra tasks” that women are expected to perform above and beyond their male counterparts, said Celinda Lake, a Democratic political strategist and pollster who has worked on the campaigns of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, and current University of California President Janet Napolitano, when she successfully was elected governor of Arizona.

“You’ve got to prove you’re qualified, you’ve got to be likable, you’ve got to contrast yourself with your opponent, and you’ve got to do it in a state that costs as much as Western Europe,” said Lake. “People think it’s just a big damn deal to run California and they’re looking for people with executive experience.”

Easier said than done. Many political observers believe that women have a tougher time winning executive office than legislative races. The current composition of the state Legislature notwithstanding, there may be something to that. Female Democrats have held both of the state’s U.S. senate seats since 1992—Feinstein is seeking a sixth term, and Californians replaced retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer with Kamala Harris. Also one-in-five Congresswomen are Californian.

“Women are thought to be collaborative and caring and good listeners and sensitive and those (traits) work in a more legislative sense,” said Kathleen Brown, who is now a partner at the L.A.-based law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. To run for the top spot, the theory goes, requires a perceived toughness—a toughness that many voters either fail to recognize in women or perceive as nastiness.

According to research by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, voters are more likely to support a male candidate who is deemed qualified, even if he is not particularly likeable. Women have to be both competent and likeable.

It’s a “double bind,” said Christine Pelosi, chair of the California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus and daughter of Nancy. “A woman Jerry Brown, if such a person existed—an aesthete, personally cold, very cerebral, someone who is unafraid to challenge the dominant paradigm at all times—that would not work,” she said.

There may not be a woman Jerry, but there was his sister who ran in 1994 and was taken by much of the press to represent a softer side—the “warm Brown.”

“I remember reading articles where the advisors of my opponent would describe me as ‘nice,’ and it was a way to say ‘nice, but not tough enough,’” Brown told CALmatters.

“Other women might be described as angry,” she said. Take Hillary Clinton. “Those words are value-laden and, I think, fit with stereotypes of ‘not strong enough to be a leader,’ whereas men just have to show up in a suit and people assume they are a strong male, capable of being tough.”

So did Brown lose the 1994 race because of her gender?

“No,” the candidate said. “I ran a bad campaign.”

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy—and a sharp critic of Brown’s during that election—agrees. She compares the Brown campaign in 1994 to the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016. Both women were criticized for delivering an ambiguous message, waffling on important issues, and, fairly or not, riding on their respective last names.

“Neither had a clear message in her campaign that resonated with her election,” she said. “Don’t get caught in thinking it’s because Californians hate women. The campaign, the political environment, name recognition. All of that plays a role in whether or not any candidate wins an election.”

Still, it takes political tact to walk the line between soft and kind, or between tough and nasty. Sometimes it takes the right biography too.

It probably isn’t a coincidence, for example, that the first and only woman to win a mayoral election in San Francisco did so after the assassination of her predecessor. The news footage of then supervisor Feinstein announcing the death of George Moscone, and her colleague on the board, Harvey Milk, left an impression on voters’ minds, said Darry Sragow, who managed Feinstein’s ill-fated run for governor in 1990.

“The circumstances under which she took office as the mayor of San Francisco, which were captured on TV and which we turned into a TV ad, were so dramatic that there was no question that she was a tough, strong, courageous leader,” said Sragow.

That subsequent ad presented a candidate who embodied both the kindheartedness supposedly conferred to her by her gender and a steeliness won by experience: “Forged from tragedy…tough and caring.”

Even so, Feinstein lost that election. But she went on to win her Senate bid two years later, in part because so many voters already knew who she was. And there’s a lesson in that, says Christine Pelosi.

“If you look at the pipeline, it takes a lot of people running before one emerges as a winner,” she said. In California, a big state with only so many positions available at the top, candidates move through that pipeline slowly.

Gavin Newsom, the current lieutenant governor and front-runner in this year’s gubernatorial race, has had his sights trained on the governor’s mansion since he was mayor of San Francisco in the mid-2000s. For years, he has been building statewide name recognition and amassing a war chest.

“The guys who have been running for a while, they’ve collected enough money, enough endorsements, enough inevitability,” said Pelosi. “Delaine Eastin, who I think is the most charismatic of all of (the gubernatorial candidates) just doesn’t have the money compete with them.”

If you’re looking for the electoral impact of #MeToo or the women’s marches or the election of Donald Trump on this year’s ballot, said Pelosi, wait another election cycle. Or look further down the ballot.

This year, Emerge California, which trains Democratic women to run for office, says it has seen an 87 percent increase in the number of would-be candidates interested in working with it. Women are serious contenders in the races for state treasurer, controller and lieutenant governor.

“There’s something about this last year, since the election, since the women’s marches, that whatever it is that holds women back, some of that has melted away,” said Eleni Kounalakis, a Democrat running for lieutenant governor.

As a longtime party insider, she recalls being a staffer for the California Democratic Party in 1992, the year California sent both Feinstein and Boxer to the U.S. Senate. The “Year of the Woman” was supposed to be the beginning of a sea change for women in American politics, but in many ways, the state still hasn’t surpassed that high water mark.


CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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