A good time to reflect on women's political accomplishments

With the attention surrounding this year's presidential election and the serious campaign mounted by Sen. Hillary Clinton, it's hard to imagine a time in the United States when women were not allowed to vote and were denied equal protection under the law in employment and education.

It wasn't until 1920 -- almost 150 years after the founding of our country -- that women won the right to vote. In California, it took another 56 years before the first woman was elected to the State Senate.

March is Women's History Month, and it affords us time to reflect on the growing contributions of women. In California, women play a central role in public life. Our two U.S. Senators are women (Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer); 19 members of our U.S. House delegation are women, with the first female Speaker, Nancy Pelosi; 33 women serve in the legislature, including Assembly Speaker-Elect Karen Bass, who will be only the second female speaker in state history; and 50 women serve as mayors in California cities larger than 30,000 people.

In addition to the increasing number of women elected officials, the range of policy issues identified with them is expanding. Whereas women in office were long associated with policies involving children, families, health care and education, now they lead several of the most powerful State Senate committees, including Labor and Industrial Relations (Carole Migden); Public Safety (Gloria Romero); Judiciary; Revenue and Taxation (Ellen Corbett); and Budget and Fiscal Review (Denise Ducheny); and I chair Energy, Utilities and Communications.

The State Senate celebrates Women's History Month by honoring a "Woman of the Year" from each of the 40 Senate Districts. I had the privilege on March 10 of recognizing San Diego City Councilwoman Toni Atkins as the 39th Senate District's "Woman of the Year" for her seven years on the San Diego City Council and seven years working with me when I served on the City Council.

Atkins is a devoted public servant whose knowledge, compassion and humor make her an outstanding advocate for the people of San Diego. From building affordable housing, to creating living wage jobs, she has always worked to strengthen our neighborhoods and improve the lives of working families.

There is a practical reason to honor women's history and accomplishments. By recognizing how far we've come, we can measure how far we still have to go. As recently as 2005, women in the United States were paid only 77 cents for every dollar paid to men in comparable jobs. The gap is even larger for Latinas, and African-American and Asian women. Today, more than 70 percent of California women are in the work force, a figure almost twice that found in 1965. But many are still in low-paying service jobs with few benefits.

Exacerbating the pay disparity is the reality that many working women still must balance their professional demands with caring for family members. To relieve some of that burden, I supported a bill in the Senate last year to extend paid leave to workers needing to care for grandparents, grandchildren, siblings and in-laws. The bill received strong support in the legislature but was vetoed by the governor.

To advance greater protections for women may ultimately require more women in elected office. In San Diego County, women have made tremendous progress winning public office but we must not become complacent. We have not reached parity. And the only way women will accomplish that is by running for public office.

In many cases, women need more prodding than men to run for office because we often wait to be asked. I assert that there are a tremendous number of qualified women in the fields of law, education, health care, business and many others who should seriously consider running for office. A good starting point is to talk with the numerous women officeholders in our region to understand the demands of running -- from community involvement and support, to financial resources and time.

Women's History Month is an excellent marker and indicator of the need for more women to join the public sphere. If we hope to create a world more conducive to our needs and concerns, it's imperative that more women directly shape those policies and laws.

Sen. Kehoe represents the 39th Senate District. To learn more about Women's History Month, visit

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