Susan Estrich: Why so few women?

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It was nearly 100 years ago that Estelle Lindsey was the first woman elected to serve on the Los Angeles City Council.

It was 60 years ago that 22-year-old Roz Wyman was the youngest person elected to serve on the Los Angeles City Council.

By the 1990s, one-third of the City Council — five of 15 — was comprised of women. Today, it is one in 15. Nury Martinez recently won a special election and became the only woman on the council.

No woman ever has served as mayor of Los Angeles. This year saw the first woman to make it to a runoff. She lost.

Los Angeles is 54 percent women. Its City Council is 93 percent men. What is wrong with this picture? Why aren’t people standing up and demanding an answer?

Oh, there have been a few articles since people woke up and realized the clock had been turned back a century, but most of them could have been written decades ago.

Why so few women?

Because of the difficulties of raising money, some people say — this in a city with a system of public financing in city races (although of course private money still matters). Because women are more policy-oriented than power-oriented, some people say — but of course, the council does do policy, and L.A. is a weak mayor/strong council system. But in my own informal survey, when I bring it up, people mostly shrug or roll their eyes. Who knows? And, maybe, who cares?

Does it matter that there is only one woman in the room?

Having been the only woman in various rooms for the past few decades, I’m sure of the answer to that one. It does matter.

I don’t pretend that all women think alike, that only a woman can represent other women, that men can’t possibly understand. But as Martinez’s own background makes clear, each of us brings our own experiences to the decisions we make and the positions we take, including experiences shaped by our gender.

Under attack in the campaign for not taking a strong enough stand against child sex abuse by a teacher while she was serving on the school board (neither she nor anyone else knew about it), Martinez responded by making public something she did not tell her own parents until she was in her 20s: that she herself was the victim of abuse as a child at the hands of a neighbor.

It also matters because politicians are role models and because the City Council can be a key stepping stone to higher office. The newly elected mayor, Eric Garcetti, previously served on the council.

There are lots of reasons not to run for office, but they apply equally to men. Sadly, it is still true that women running for elective office have a much easier time convincing voters to elect them to legislative positions than to executive positions. The old stereotypes about women not being “tough enough” or decisive enough, about not being “CEO” material, stereotypes that continue to plague women in corporate America (even those who are leaning in so far they are on the verge of falling flat), have long had their parallels in politics.

So it’s no surprise, on that score, that California has two women senators but has never had a woman governor; that neither of our two largest cities has ever had a woman mayor; that women hold on so tightly (myself included) to the possibility that Hillary will run again in 2016 and finally crack the cement ceiling at the top.

We are supposed to be long past the old “years of the woman” that dominated the ’80s and ’90s, where during each cycle we would say, “This is it.” It wasn’t. It still isn’t. And if we don’t take notice, Los Angeles may not be the only place where we’re heading backward instead of forward.

SUSAN ESTRICH’S column is distributed by Creators Syndicate Inc.

 


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