Special Election Gives L.A. City Council Its Only Woman

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Although 54% of Los Angeles residents are women, none of them held seats on the 15-member city council—until today.

Nury Martinez defeated (pdf) Cindy Montanez in a runoff for the Sixth District seat to re-establish a female presence on the council that has been historically thin and intermittent at best. Only 17 women have been elected to the council, with almost all of them coming after 1953.

Estelle Lawton Lindsey was the first woman elected, and served from 1915-1917, during World War I, when there were fewer men around. She was a journalist who wrote for the Los Angeles Tribune and the Los Angeles Express after moving to the city in 1908. Although women were not permitted to vote in national elections until the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in 1920, California gave them the right in 1911.

Lindsey ran unsuccessfully for the Assembly twice as a Socialist candidate before getting kicked out of the party in 1914 for supporting some non-Socialists. She was the last female city council member for 40 years, despite two more wars.

Harriet Davenport and 22-year-old Roz Wyman ended the drought in 1953 when both were elected. Davenport stayed just a couple of years, but Wyman was around until 1965. There was another four-year gap before Pat Russell was elected in 1969, and at one point during the next 18 years, four women served on the council together.

They peaked at five 11 years ago, before shrinking to zero earlier in 2013 when Councilwoman Jan Perry ran for mayor and lost.      

Women don’t fare much better in the rest of Los Angeles municipal government. The mayor is a man (Eric Garcetti defeated Wendy Greuel), as is the city attorney and controller. So are the general managers of the police, fire, water and power, sanitation, transportation and planning departments.

Despite high-profile women in politics—Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer, Diane Feinstein, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann—a study (pdf) out of American University’s School of Public Affairs doesn’t mode well for a major uptick in the number of women on the council anytime soon.

Researchers surveyed 2,100 college students and found a huge gender gap in political ambition, leading to the conclusion that “women’s under-representation in elective office is likely to extend well into the future.”

Twenty percent of men said they often thought about running for political office sometime in the future; only 10% of women answered in the affirmative. Thirty-percent of men said the idea had crossed their mind, compared to 27% of women. Around 43% of men said they never thought about it, while most women, 63%, said it never crossed their mind.

The researchers said the reasons for the low political ambition were five-fold: little encouragement from parents; lower exposure to political information and discussion; a lack of win-oriented sports experience; less encouragement from anyone; and less confidence in succeeding, even once they have established careers.     

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Women to L.A. City Hall: Remember Us? (by Lindsay Bubar and Sandra Fluke, Los Angeles Times Op-Ed)

Why Are Women Practically Nonexistent on L.A. City Council? (by Hillel Aron, LA Weekly)

Los Angeles Politics Needs More Women (by John Phillips, The Daily Beast)

Women Lose Political Footing at LA City Hall (by Alice Walton, KPCC)

Girls Just Wanna Not Run (by Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox,  American University School of Public Affairs) (pdf)

Women on the Los Angeles City Council (Los Angeles Times graphic)

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