In their first weeks in office, the Trump administration and Republican Congress have put women’s health, security and rights in their crosshairs. While feminists will be playing defense on the national level, women leaders in Los Angeles, at least, are forging ahead with innovative legislation to advance women’s equality.
That’s because last November voters elected a female supermajority to run the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the largest local government in the nation. “One out of every 35 Americans lives in L.A. County. If Los Angeles County were a state, it would be the eighth largest state in the country,” Supervisor Sheila Kuehl (D) observed. The county’s powers are immense, covering law enforcement to libraries, firefighting to food stamps. “We do everything that states do,” Kuehl continued. “We do the health care; we have the jails; we do the transportation; we run the social services; we run the foster care agency; we run the juvenile camps.”
Until the 2014 elections, there was only one woman among the five supervisors (called “county commissioners” elsewhere). Now that figure has flipped, with women making up four out of five. Quickly showing the payoffs of electing women, at one of its earliest meetings the new board unanimously passed a groundbreaking gender equity policy. The initiative calls for a systematic review of all government programs, services and employment from a gender perspective in order to advance the equality and well-being of women and girls.
“I thought it was a very good opportunity to ask the county to do a very large undertaking,” Kuehl, who spearheaded and coauthored the Women and Girls Initiative, told Ms. “When I came into the Board of Supervisors, it was clear to me that many women’s issues had sort of fallen onto the back burners. People were talking about many different kinds of differences—and appropriately so. But people were rarely talking in a really up-front manner about the differences in how government was treating women and men.”
Elected in 2014 to the county board, Kuehl came to the position with deep experience in feminist and LGBT advocacy and government. The first openly lesbian or gay person elected to the California Legislature, Kuehl authored 171 bills in her 14 years there, including legislation on domestic violence and LGBT civil rights and the first paid-family-leave law in the nation. The initiative that just passed, coauthored with Supervisor Hilda Solis (D), former U.S. labor secretary under Barack Obama, is a serious effort to tackle deep inequities facing L.A. women and girls. And as Californians are fond of saying: As goes California, so goes the nation. The sheer size and influence of Los Angeles makes this effort worth watching as a model of feminist policymaking.
L.A.’s initiative is bold for the United States, but it’s not unusual. Governing with a gender perspective has become the norm globally. U.N. Women advocates this approach at the United Nations, and feminists have pushed national governments to take gender into account when making policy. Their efforts have yielded promising results. Chile’s process resulted in thousands of free day care centers for low-income mothers who are working, in school or seeking employment. Mexico applies a gender lens in budgeting that’s led to the addition of emergency obstetric care in national health insurance and new microcredit programs. Hundreds of local and national governments engage in some form of gender-responsive budgeting.
Likewise, policymaking with a gender perspective is producing innovative programs in unexpected areas. Urban planners in Vienna, under mandate to apply a gender lens, made it a point to interview women about their use of public transportation. They discovered that women moved between paid work and caregiving throughout the day, walking and using public transit more than men, often with children in tow. In response, sidewalks and intersections were redesigned to better accommodate parents with children in strollers. New lighting was installed on streets, at parks and at bike shares, which addresses women’s concerns about sexual harassment in dark public spaces. In Canada, some cities allow after-hours bus riders to request a nonscheduled stop if they feel unsafe.
This new approach to making policy with gender at the forefront grew out of an explicit commitment to gender equality, as well as a growing recognition that progress had stalled using primarily anti-discrimination and equal opportunity laws. These conventional tools arose to prevent and punish civil rights violations. They remain indispensable. But they are insufficient. Policymakers gain more options for improving women’s opportunity and well-being once they integrate a gender perspective.
Los Angeles’ measure directs the county to “apply a gender lens.” And a priority of the initiative will be to tackle deep and systemic inequities facing women here. One out of five women in the county live below the federal poverty line, and the incidence of poverty for Latinas and African American women is even higher. Women make up a third of the county’s homeless population. Forty percent of single mothers live in poverty, while child care in California costs more than college.
“That’s what gives me heartache, when I see the real statistics,” Solis said. For her, like Kuehl, this effort grew naturally out of her own experience. “It’s a no-brainer. I am a female and I am a woman of color and have faced many barriers and challenges in my political career and life growing up as a daughter of immigrants. I came from a working-class family. My mother raised seven children and worked part-time, because my father’s income did not stretch far enough to cover our family. So I know how deeply this affects individuals like myself and many women.”
Solis’ and Kuehl’s life stories and careers highlight an important point: It’s hardly a coincidence that this ambitious initiative was led by two women, and passed into law just two weeks after Kuehl and Solis were joined in office by two more women, Supervisors Janice Hahn (D) and Kathryn Barger (R). Research shows that women politicians are more likely than men to lead on women’s rights, health, economic opportunity, security and freedom from violence. It also shows that women legislators collaborate more often in order to pass bills. And when they do, they tend to do so with other women.
“Because our governing body is very collaborative itself,” Kuehl observed, naming her three female colleagues, “I think we may be pretty devoted to carrying out these recommendations, whatever they may end up being.”
In other words, women will get it done.
An earlier version of this article ran in the Los Angeles Times.
Nancy L. Cohen is a historian and author, most recently, of Breakthrough: The Making of America’s First Woman President.
Jennifer M. Piscopo is an assistant professor of politics and affiliate faculty of Latin American and Latino/a studies at Occidental College.
This article appeared in Ms. Magazine, Spring 2017