A woman's place is in the House ... and the Senate
Ventura County’s women in politics
By Joan Trossman Bien 05/31/2012
The United States of America, where all men are created equal, is also where women have often been ignored and left behind. In order for women to participate in the political system, beginning with the right to vote, it has taken strength, organization and tenacity. At every watershed moment, when the inclusion of women as full citizens could easily have been incorporated into our laws, politicians and the courts have chosen, instead, to ignore women’s rights and exclude them from power.
The rights of men have been articulated in our laws, the same laws that have repeatedly excluded women. If the law was ambiguous, the courts applied it only to men. Nevertheless, some women have taken the more difficult path and have chosen to serve their communities as elected public officials. Those now in office will say that it isn’t really that bad, but history says otherwise. What American men believe is their God-given right to political power, women have spent centuries fighting to secure just a small portion.
In the coming election, many Ventura County women are running for offices that range from city council to Congress. What these women have in common is a passion for issues that affect their daily lives and a strong desire to serve the public. But if history is also a projection for the future, it won’t ever be easy.
144 years to get the vote
At the birth of our country in 1776, a time when great thought and debate went into writing our foundational documents, Abigail Adams begged her husband, John, “to remember the ladies” in the writing of the new laws of this country.
Apparently, he forgot.
It took two years to ratify the 14th Amendment in 1868. Yet, this declaration of the rights of U.S. citizens to due process and equal protection under the law specified that only male citizens age 21and older had the absolute right to vote. In 1874, the U.S. Supreme Court made it official: the 14th Amendment did not grant women the right to vote. By 1917, women picketing the White House for the vote were being arrested and jailed.
It wasn’t until 1920 that women in this country were allowed to vote. California was ahead of the times when it gave women the unrestricted right to vote in 1911. The state clung, however, to giving men superior property rights in divorce law. Women did not get equal control of community property in California until 1975.
The Equal Rights Amendment: 89 years and counting
“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
The ERA was written by Alice Paul in 1923 and was introduced to Congress every year thereafter. In 1972, it passed both houses of Congress and was sent to the states for ratification. As the seven year limit approached and the amendment remained just out of reach for a few states, the deadline was extended by three years. Nevertheless, it remained three states short of meeting the required three-fourths majority and died.
Proponents of the ERA were forced back to square one and have been introducing the amendment in Congress every single year since. In the 1970s, this simple declaration of equality of all U.S. citizens became the flashpoint for rightwing alarmists. And still it languishes, a symbol of the confrontations of the later 20th century that define today’s political polarization.
Despite the very slow progress of women getting elected to Congress, the number of women in national office has gained momentum. From 1917 until 2001, the number of female U.S. senators remained in the single digits. Right now, there are 76 women in the House and 17 women in the Senate. In the California Legislature, 28.3 percent of the legislators are women, a slight decline in the past two years. Evidently, political representation equal to the population is still a long way off.
The recent redistricting in Ventura County has prompted three women to run for newly drawn congressional districts. Also, women are vying for various seats throughout the county, including county supervisor and state senate. Most of the women running for office or currently in office have participated in the political process for many years. And then there are the women who support and encourage those who are in office or want to be.
Julia Brownley, from the PTA to the State House
Since 2006, Democrat Julia Brownley has represented Oxnard, Port Hueneme and Oak Park as well as the Santa Monica and Malibu areas in the California Assembly. She is now running for the U.S. House of Representatives in the freshly minted 26th Congressional District, which encompasses most of Ventura County.
Brownley said her time in Sacramento has allowed her to observe the politics of men and of women. “I think women tend to focus more, ask more questions, delve into issues, use their own experiences as a base for their decisions and are less political than men. Or less transactional.”
The recession, Brownley said, has been especially harsh on women and children. “When you start making cuts like have been proposed in the Legislature, they are disproportionate to women and children. They suffer the most when you cut education, when you cut child care, when you cut CalWORKS, the social safety net in any way shape or form.”
Brownley said men have sidestepped the targeted cuts. “When we talk about health care issues, we never are really talking about men’s health care issues, we’re always talking about women’s issues. Women are under siege and have been attacked.”
Judy Bysshe, political and environmental activist
Bysshe, although not a politician herself, has been at the center of women’s politics in Ventura County for decades. She set up a boot camp for female candidates, where they learn the realities of politics and the importance of organization, fundraising and how to run their offices once elected.
Bysshe said there are some basic assumptions that women make about themselves that can hamper a successful campaign. “It is harder for a woman to raise funds than it is for a man because people see a man running for office and they make the assumption he can do the job. They see a woman run for office, and they need to know more about her to see if she is qualified. A man will look at a political job and say, ‘I can do that.’ A woman inevitably asks, ‘Am I qualified?’ ”
Progress has been slow. “We like to see ourselves as being miles ahead of where we were with men and women. We’re not. A woman fights harder for the job and has to prove herself more. A woman in politics has to prove herself time and time again,” said Bysshe.
Hannah-Beth Jackson, ready to return
Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, fought a valiant campaign against state Sen. Tony Strickland, R-Moorpark. In the 2008 race for his current seat, Jackson lost by a mere .5 percent of the vote. Before that, Jackson was in the state Assembly from 1998 to 2004.
Jackson has given some serious thought to the differences between men and women in politics. “Women tend to see politics much more cooperatively. Men talk down; this is the way it is going to be. Women are more interested in the policy. The men are much more interested in the politics and in the power. They like the power. The power really feeds that sense of importance.”
Women, Jackson said, often get into politics to pursue an issue. “They want to do the right thing. Without women speaking up strongly, you will not see much discussion about the subject of child care. That has historically been an issue where Republican women and Democratic women have been able to come together. We are inherently the child care providers.”
As the center of a family, women are concerned about family issues, Jackson said. “It is very important that our voice and our experiences, like dealing with elderly parents and dealing with children’s education. These critical components along with how we juggle work and home are things that are a must in terms of the political debate.”
Kathy Long: looking to recruit women
Kathy Long has been a Ventura County supervisor since 1997 and is once again running for another term. “It is interesting to watch when you go into a group meeting where men sit and where women sit and who controls the meeting.”
Long agreed that women must meet a higher bar in politics when it comes to mastery of the issues. And she has seen some unwelcome changes recently. “The campaign road is tough for anyone these days because I think we have lost our ability for civil discourse, and it has become a very public spotlight with campaigns going negative.”
The lack of progress for women bothers Long. “We’re still sitting here with only about 30 percent women holding elected office. That’s a constant battle for us now. I don’t see younger women coming into politics as people who want to have a career in public service.”
Long tries to include talented women. “I’m always looking for women to appoint to boards and committees. It’s a way to get them accustomed to the public process, encouraging them to move up the ladder and, of course, to run for office at some point.”
Linda Parks: Independent and doing it her way
Linda Parks, veteran of the Thousand Oaks City Council and a county supervisor since 2002, is blazing a new trail in her run for the House of Representatives for the 26th Congressional District. She had been a Republican but the party’s extreme turn to the right left her brand of politics in the dust. As an independent, Parks has weathered the daggers from both the Republican and Democratic parties. A barrage of Democratic mailers in mid-May were full of misleading and untruthful statements, falsely linking her to Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. Parks knows that this will be the most difficult campaign of her life.
Parks spends a great deal of time fundraising but does not think she is at a disadvantage as a woman. “I don’t see it as a gender issue, truthfully.”
Still, she has witnessed gender discrimination. “I still think there are good-old-boy networks going on, where women are marginalized. I’ve seen examples, like city council, where they bypass women for mayor.”
Most women get involved in politics to address a particular local issue. As a former urban planner, Parks found her place. “My issue was Ahmanson Ranch that got me involved in politics. There are different issues that spark people’s interest and get them involved.”
Janice Parvin: Moorpark mayor and mentor
Janice Parvin had her personal world shaken up in the 1990s when the builder of her new house abandoned the partially completed development where she lived. Parvin ran and was elected to a seat in the Moorpark City Council, where she now presides as mayor. Parvin also works full time in business.
Much of her strength and tenacity come from her upbringing. “When you are raised by a really strong woman who tells you that you stand for your own principles, then you grow up with that comfort level, you are just as important as they [men] are. But in business, you tend to get more respect from your supervisors if you are a man than if you are a woman.”
Parvin is concerned that young women who aspire to elected positions are completely out of sync with the unwritten rules of getting elected. “The younger women are out there. It is interesting; you give them advice and it is not often taken.”
As the head of the human resources department at her company, Parvin was surprised to find inappropriate comments on the Facebook page of one young woman who claimed that she wanted a political career. The woman simply did not see the problem, nor the wisdom of Parvin’s advice to take it down.
“It is always going to be part of your record,” Parvin said.
Fran Pavley: from teaching history to creating history
State Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, is running for re-election to the state Senate. After a 25-year career spent teaching history to middle-school students in Moorpark, she began a political career on the local level, after which she was elected to the state Assembly in 2001 and has been in the state Senate since 2008.
“The Legislature is a lot more rough-and-tumble than local politics. There are a lot more egos; they tend to be all Type A personalities, so it requires a different skill set.”
Pavley said she does not see much of a difference in substance between the genders. “I see a difference in style, dealing with men and women. Generally speaking, with males, it is a very competitive atmosphere. My skills from teaching serve me well in the Legislature. I do my homework and work with everyone. People often comment how I never lose my temper. As a teacher, you can’t let the kids think they got to you.”
Christy Weir, City Council woman and former Ventura mayor
Christy Weir has paid her dues on the local level in Ventura, having served on the City Council since 2003 and was mayor of Ventura from 2007 to 2009. She is now running for a seat on the Ventura County Board of Supervisors.
Weir has a different view of whether women are discriminated against in the political arena. She sees the positive side. “Women in politics have become accepted and welcomed for the most part. Women have shown that they are capable of leading, of working collaboratively with others, of problem-solving.”
Weir acknowledged that the road to political success for a woman can be difficult. “The drawbacks include learning to function in a political environment of male dominance, which has existed for centuries, and being taken seriously in a culture that can seem conflicted at times about the relatively recent role of women as equal partners in leadership.”
As mayor, Weir said, she would visit elementary schools. The students would be told ahead of time that the mayor was coming to speak to their class. As one surprised student said, upon seeing that the mayor was not a man, “Look! The mayor is a girl!”
Cathie Wright: her mother’s daughter
Cathie Wright, R-Simi Valley, the daughter of the recently deceased legislator Cathie Wright, has some large shoes to fill. Although she has never held an elected office, she is running for the U.S. House of Representatives in the newly drawn 25th Congressional District in which Simi Valley has been attached to a large chunk of Los Angeles County.
Wright’s brush with politics comes primarily from observing the problems that her mother experienced as a woman. “My mom would tell me about how the men wouldn’t listen to her, made her feel like she was nothing in the room sometimes, and she was threatened by the powerful men that they would pull her off her committees. I’m talking about the Republicans doing it to her. It was her own party.”
Wright said her mother preferred working with other women. “My mother said it was just easier. We know there’s a give and take, and you can do that without losing your principles.”