Bill Whalen

Gov. Brown can be bold for California women

Gov. Jerry Brown shakes hands with legislators before his State of the State address in January. Bill Whalen says Brown should focus on women in his final State of the State next month.
Gov. Jerry Brown shakes hands with legislators before his State of the State address in January. Bill Whalen says Brown should focus on women in his final State of the State next month.

Here’s a suggestion for Gov. Jerry Brown when he drafts his final State of the State Address: celebrate women by marking a state milestone, then do something bold on women’s behalf.


Next year is the centennial of California’s first female state legislators: Esto Bates Broughton, Grace Dorris, Elizabeth Hughes and Anna Saylor – all elected to the state Assembly two years before most women were granted the right to vote (California approved women’s suffrage in 1911, almost a decade before the 19th Amendment).

It’s also a year that will begin with a serious question looming over the state Capitol: Can lawmakers adequately address institutional sexual misconduct in a manner that earns the public’s trust and actually cleanses a putrescent political culture?

To date, Brown hasn’t been much a part of this storyline. Thankfully, there’s no parade of women sullying his character. Still, the most powerful elected official in California surely must have an opinion or two.

Brown should use his big speech in January to go big on this issue. My suggestion: Appoint a blue-ribbon panel to examine the treatment of women beyond the confines of Sacramento. To lead it, name the woman the governor trusts most – his wife and special counsel, Anne Gust Brown. And why not former California First Lady Maria Shriver as a co-chair?

California doesn’t lack for star power, nor should such a committee. Sherry Lansing, the former Hollywood executive who is a past chairwoman of the UC Board of Regents, would seem a smart addition to lead a conversation on sexism in higher education.

Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook chief operating officer who’s begun to emerge in the #MeToo conversation, could examine Silicon Valley’s phallo-centric sandbox, perhaps with the help of Marissa Mayer, until recently Yahoo’s CEO.

To lead the conversation in the entertainment community, I’d go with Gabrielle Carteris, the recently reelected president of the Screen Actors Guild, and Cathy Schulman, president of the advocacy group Women in Film, which recently set up a sexual harassment help line in Southern California.

From the world of politics, I’d toss in Rep. Jackie Speier, arguably Congress’s strongest voice on sexual harassment, and former Sen. Barbara Boxer, who was calling out male misbehavior back when many of this generation’s women in office were in grade school.

Someone else I’d be tempted to add, but likely couldn’t as she’s a candidate for office: Eleni Kounalakis. But should the Sacramento businesswoman become our next lieutenant governor, she could champion this subject beyond 2018 the same way Gavin Newsom used the office to delve into timely matters.

There’s something else Brown should discuss with regard to women in California – progress, or more to the point, the lack thereof in politics.

Those pioneering women in the Assembly all lost their jobs to men by 1924. Over the next half-century, only 10 women served in the chamber. The state Senate’s “herstory” is bleaker: It took until 1976 for Rose Ann Vuich, a conservative Democrat from the Central Valley, to break the glass ceiling.

At present, 17 Assembly members and nine senators make up the California Legislative Women’s Caucus. That’s barely one in five legislators, though it’s better than today’s Congress. According to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women in Politics, 74 of 312 statewide executive offices nationwide are held by women. In California, it’s only one in seven. Nationally, women hold nearly one-fourth of all state legislative seats. Again, California underperforms.

Brown can’t rewrite this past, but he can lament the present. And maybe offer a better future if he thinks big – and beyond the Capitol’s confines.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at