People are calling 2018, “the year of the woman.” More women have filed to run for office than ever before, and are advancing to the election in November. Even in the Central Valley, about half of the races for state legislature include female candidates. But despite the enthusiasm, many say it will take more than one election to bring gender equality to government.
One woman hoping to take a seat in the state legislature is Aileen Rizo. While giving a keynote address to the Latinas in Business and Professions Association, she says she anticipated spending her life as an educator after getting a job with the Fresno County Office of Education.
“I’d sit in my office at the third level of the Fresno County Office of Education building, and I’d look out and think, ‘wow, how did this Latina girl make it here?’”
But in 2012, Rizo sued FCOE for wage discrimination and began advocating for equal pay in Sacramento. Rizo explained what it was like to tell her story to her representative, Assembly Member Jim Patterson.
“I went in there and I told him my story. He started giving me the excuses I had always heard. He started talking about frivolous lawsuits and I said, ‘frivolous lawsuits? Do you know how many thousands of dollars in retainer’s fees my family and I have sacrificed for?’” Rizo recalled. “How many women have that money? And he looked at me and said, ‘Oh, I'll think about it.’”
Rizo said she watched Patterson vote ‘no’ against the equal pay bills she had asked him to support. This is what motivated her to run against him. She launched her campaign back in February, when she learned Patterson was running unopposed.
“I was telling people, someone needs to run, because the deadline was coming up, and then someone said what about you and I had to, take it back to myself and say, what about you, you know.”
Another woman, Elizabeth Heng, had a similar experience. She’s running for Congress against incumbent Jim Costa.
“I came back to the valley because of family,and eventually I was planning on running but didn't intend it would be this quickly,” Heng says. “But when the opportunity presented itself, because I realized that nobody else was jumping in, I decided to throw my name in the ring.”
Unlike Rizo, who is a democrat, Heng is a republican. However, both are running against incumbents in districts where most registered voters identify with the party of their opponent.
“So beating an incumbent is always hard. We’re re-electing incumbents to the House about 95 percent of the time,” says Lisa Bryant, a political science professor at Fresno State.
Bryant adds that the issues women often campaign on, like childcare and equal pay, aren’t the Central Valley’s most popular issues, at least not in rural areas where likely voters reside.
“I think part of that is issues that tend to resonate with voters in the valley have not been issues that women particularly campaign on effectively,” says Bryant. “We see a little bit of that going on, you know water, agriculture. Those have traditionally been male-dominated arenas in politics.”
But Bryant says, that by looking at primary results, women have done well so far. Voters are turning out for reasons, like the #MeToo movement and opposition to the Trump presidency. Bryant adds that the Central Valley has never sent a women to Congress, but this could change in November. Along with Heng, two other congressional races in the Central Valley include female contenders.
Most of the women running for office this year are democrats, which puts Heng as a republican in the minority. But Kelly Dittmar says it’s important that women from all backgrounds run. She’s with the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Dittmar asked 83 women in congress what the impact of their position has been. She recently published those findings in a book she co-wrote called, “A Seat at the Table.”
“One way they talk about their impact is to talk about symbolic impact, or both the honor they have and the responsibilities they feel to be role models to not only young women but young men; to change the perception of political leadership so that folks see individuals like them,” says Dittmar.
She notes, that while representation of ideas and identity is one impact, that alone doesn’t compel people to vote for a woman over a man.
“And that's because partisanship really reigns supreme,” says Dittmar. “So in a general election where you're choosing between a Democrat and a republican, you're likely just going to choose for the person who identifies with you ideologically.”
Dittmar also says that even with women running in high numbers, at the federal level, it’s unlikely that women will win more than a quarter of seats in the House of Representatives. Right now women make up about 18 percent of the House.
Sofia Pereira is with She Should Run, a non-partisan organization that aims to see 250,000 women run by 2030. She says, even if women don’t win, they still make a difference.
“When one woman runs in her community, there is a multiplier effect that happens so every woman that we encounter, there's a ripple effect that comes with that,” says Pereira. “So even if a woman doesn't win this time around, it helps show the example and serve as a role model to other women that they too can pursue this path.”
At a Fresno farmers market, I met voters like Elenita Verano who were excited to see more female candidates.
“Well, it's good now that there's a wave of women candidates for the midterm election. It's about time we elect more women in the government.”
But Verano said she didn’t know if any women were running to represent her. For all of the candidates running in November, that’s the real challenge: getting people to pay attention.