Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Women lose political footing at LA City Hall

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With Wendy Greuel on this year’s mayoral ticket, it may seem like Los Angeles is moving forward on gender equality. But in reality, the city has gone backwards in how women are represented in municipal government.

On July 1, L.A. city government could be run entirely by men. 

Fewer than half of all city commissioners are women. The general managers of the police, fire, Water and Power, Sanitation, Transportation and Planning departments are all men. After the runoff election, the city attorney and controller will be men. And when the new City Council is seated this summer, it will have no more than two women — and possibly none at all.

"I mean, think of this, that we would have in 2013 no woman on the city council. That’s really amazing," said Roz Wyman, who 60 years ago became the second woman ever elected to the L.A. City Council. The first was Estelle Lawton Lindsey in 1915.

"First place, I was 22-years-old," Wyman recalls. "And secondly, most of the men on the council were old enough to be my father or grandfather. And there was great resentment toward me. Period, just period."

In L.A.’s history, just 16 women have ever served on the City Council. One of them was Joy Picus, who served from 1973-93. Some may question what politicians can do for women’s rights at the local level, but Picus took on feminist issues throughout her tenure. In 1985, she was named Ms. Magazine’s Woman of the Year for her work on pay equity among entry-level city workers. One of her early successes was on maternity leave for city employees, and that came with an assist from Councilwoman Peggy Stevenson.

"My male colleagues were not particularly supportive and they thought it very amusing and they made nasty little jokes about it," Picus says. "And Peggy stood up there and she said to them, and only she could have done this, 'You’re behaving like a bunch of high school kids.'" 

When Picus ran for office 40 years ago, she did so only after she got married and raised her kids.

"I like to say I was 35 before I knew that women could run for office," Picus says. "There were no role models in my life." 

But even with role models, it’s still a challenge getting women to run for office. Richard Fox, a professor at Loyola Marymount University, has studied why women are underrepresented in American politics. Of the country’s 100 largest cities, 12 have a female mayor. Women make up less than 20 percent of Congress. And at the state level, just 10 percent of governors are female.

Fox’s latest study, called "Girls Just Wanna Not Run," found the gender gap in political ambitions can be seen in college-aged adults.

"One of the last questions we present in the survey is, If you want to make a difference in the world and improve society, what are some of the best ways to do that?, Fox says. "And women are more likely to say, 'Work for a charity' [or] 'Work for a good cause.' And men are more likely to say, 'Run for office and become a leader.'" 

The survey of young adults ages 18 to 25 found parents were more likely to encourage their sons to run for public office. Boys were more likely to take a political science class, participate in college government, and discuss politics with their friends. Fox even looked at what role sports may play in the way men and women view running for office.

"If you think of an election as a game you could win, which it seems like young men are more likely to think about...where fewer women are doing that and then saying that’s important to them, it sort of makes sense how those two connect," Fox says. 

And even when women get elected, they face hurdles in office that typically don’t exist for their male colleagues.

"There was definitely some feedback about my appearance, about my age and I think those comments that came because I’m a woman," says Lindsey Horvath, who was 26 when she was appointed to the West Hollywood City Council in 2009. She’s been active with Democratic campaigns and the National Organization for Women. 

"We hear that women candidates are not always the strongest on the economic issues or public safety issues," Horvath says, "and so they assume the only issues women are interested in when we get into office are social services or human services, which are critically important, but which are sort of seen as the lighter work of the community." 

As for what the public loses when women don't have a seat at the table, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer says: "Women tend to be more collaborative at a time when we have to have that collaboration to get anything done. Women tend to be less interested in being something and more interested in doing something." 

But for women to do something politically, they have to seek, and win, office. The race between Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti will be settled on May 21. Regardless of who wins, the roll call in the City Hall chamber will continue to be dominated by council members referred to as Mister

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