On Tuesday, Women's Equality Day marks the 94th anniversary of women's suffrage — and offers a moment to reflect on the so-called political progress of American women. Emphasis on the "so-called."
From our city halls to the halls of Congress, the face of American government remains overwhelmingly male. At current rates, it will take 107 years for women to comprise 50% of Congress, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research. California, with the ninth-largest economy in the world, would rank an embarrassing 55th on the Inter-Parliamentary Union's measure of women's representation.
Of course it is not fair. But we can agonize, or we can act. Here then is a three-part plan for California to eliminate its political gender gap — and in the process blaze a path for the nation to follow:
One, double the number of California state lawmakers. Two, let each Senate and Assembly district elect two members. And three, mandate that one seat in every district be held by a woman and one by a man.
In the time it would take to qualify and pass a ballot initiative by a simple majority, 50% of California's lawmakers would be women.
Why should you care if your representatives are men or women, as long as they share your views and are competent? Most importantly, because fair representation is a fundamental principle of democracy. Few today would argue for going back to the days, as recently as 1985, when 90% of Congress was white and male. Few today would defend our paltry level of women's representation — 18% in Congress and 27% in California — as right or fair or just.
Yet there are also good practical reasons to put more women in office.
Female legislators have been proven to be at least as effective as male legislators. Moreover, the research is unequivocal: The more women in office, the more laws that are passed advancing gender equality, such as paid family leave and universal child care. Many studies have shown that female legislators engage in greater collaboration and
consensus building. By empowering more women in government, we could very well get more responsive and more functional government in the bargain.
Despite enormous effort to nudge up the number of women in office, why are we stuck? The problem isn't sexism, or a lack of qualified female candidates, or voters.
Too few women hold elective office because our electoral system favors incumbents, and the vast majority of incumbents are men.
In the most recent general election, 90% of incumbent male and female candidates for Congress won reelection, and all but two incumbent California Assembly members won their reelection bids. (Both were competing in redrawn districts.) In the history of the United States, 11,813 men and 294 women have served in Congress.
We can't exactly wait for half the politicians in Sacramento to quit their jobs, all for the cause of women's equality. Instead, we can acknowledge that our electoral system is the source of our gender disparity and enact reforms to change the face of California government. That's where doubling the number of legislators, creating two-member districts and — the linchpin of the proposal — adopting a 50-50 gender quota for each district's seats come in.
By American lights, a quota might seem radical, but "radical" is hardly the word for something done in so many places. More than 60 nations mandate gender quotas and at least 40 others employ voluntary quotas. Scholars widely agree that the democracies making substantive progress toward gender parity are doing so through quotas.
Still, in the United States, quotas carry heavy cultural baggage, and it might be prudent to include in the measure a sunset provision that would preserve the two-member district rule but end the quota after about 30 years. By that time, women would have all the advantages of incumbency that men have today.
Because of the quirks of the American electoral system, the least disruptive way to enact a quota is to increase the number of legislators and create multi-member districts. Although legislatures can be too large to function efficiently, experts have thought for years that California needs a larger one. With only 40 senators and 80 Assembly members for a population of 38 million, California has one of the world's least representative governments.
This plan to close California's political gender gap offers benefits beyond its main goal yet would have minimal negative impact.
Most important, it would not favor one political party over the other. Republican-leaning districts probably would elect two Republicans; Democratic-leaning ones would elect
two Democrats. Granted, paying for the new lawmakers would cost more, but the total would be only a tiny fraction of California's $156-billion budget.
Political innovation is in California's DNA. The state has always been a leader of the nation. We can and should lead the way on achieving women's political equality. In half the states, women hold less than one-quarter of state legislative seats. Many states and cities — including Los Angeles — have too few women in office and too few lawmakers for too many constituents and could readily adapt this three-part plan.
By changing the face of local government and putting a critical mass of women on the incumbents ladder to higher office, we shouldn't have to wait 107 years for a Congress that looks like America.
Nancy L. Cohen is a historian and author of three books on American politics. She is currently writing a book on women and the presidency.