This blog post shares key lessons from an interview with Senator Carol Liu — a phenomenal woman who represents District 25 in California.
Recent studies confirm a disturbing lack of political representation by women of color in public office. [See the following: Status of Women & Girls in California, An Examination of the Status of Women in California and Local Government, Women’s Representation in California]
Senator Carol Liu was the first Asian-American woman to serve as Senator in California. She currently Chairs the Education Committee, and has been a tireless advocate for educational equity, economic justice, and environmental sustainability. We met to talk about her path into governance, and the importance of women in public office.
The Senator’s glasses were the color of cinnamon candy. A huge map of the state lined the wall behind us. We sat next to a worn bouquet of orange marigolds at a simple conference table in her offices that doubled as staff lunchroom with a microwave and coffee pot. She immediately set the tone for our conversation.
“There are more women going to law school, more women going into medicine, but there are not more women going into public policy and politics — and that is what sets the stage for how we live.”
She argued that the notion persists:
“Women are to be seen and not heard, just like children. When they do stand up and speak, people get irritated. We don’t have a society that picks up the slack [for families]. We don’t have a society that values children in terms of offering them day care, pre-school, or support families as they try to be whoever they want to be. We [women] are about 25–27% in the state legislature today. If we got up to about 33% or 40% we would wield more power.”
Every girl’s path begins somewhere. The lanterns, or mentors, that helped inspire the Senator were her mother and grandmother.
She was the daughter of an achievement- oriented mother who finished high school ahead of time, and completed college early. Her mother graduated from UC Berkeley, worked, and raised a family. She was ahead of her time, but had traditional views about gendered work roles.
When the Senator was a young woman, social expectations restricted professional opportunities for women. These expectations were felt in society and reproduced at home, in school, and in the work place.
She reminisced, “You could be a teacher or a nurse. Remember that — a teacher or a nurse?”
In contrast, her brother was encouraged to be a doctor or a dentist. By the time she became an adult, and was a mother to her own children, societal norms had changed.
“I could have never done that with my kids. There has been a generational shift. They got to choose [their career paths].”
Of the options available to her, Senator Liu chose education. She worked for years as an educator and didn’t go into public office until she had raised her children. At that transition in her life, she found herself calculating the time she could spend with her family to structure the number of hours she would invest in community service. “I figured it was five days a week, one project a day, with the weekend for my family.” After becoming a respected local volunteer, she was asked by community members to run for local office.
“Women must be asked,” she explained. “We don’t just take that step [into politics] on our own.”
Stories of corruption and unethical behavior among public officials are commonplace in the news. However, Senator Liu spoke about service as an opportunity to become an ethical leader.
“Politics is one of the professions that tests the essence of your character because you have to be trustworthy. You have to be a truthsayer, or no one will follow you. You have to be someone who can embrace other people, other ideas — not just your own. It’s a table full, a cacophony of voices. You try to make your way through to something that will be best for everybody.”
“When you are in the capitol,” I asked, “does it feel like ‘everybody’ or do you just know that intellectually?”
“No,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like everybody.” But, “each one of us represents about one million people.”
Having seen her speak previously in public to teenagers, parents, community leaders, and local officials, one story in particular stuck with me. I asked that she recount the tale of the first women’s bathroom in the capitol.
“Oh. The Rose Room?” she smiled.
“Rose Ann Vuich from Fresno inherited her seat from her husband who was deceased. She was a House Frau, but when he died she became the candidate…When the guys would say ‘Gentlemen,’ she would say ‘and Lady,’ and ring her little bell…The bathroom was created at her request because she wanted equity, and she got it.”
In 2006, State Resolution 29 honored Senator Vuich as being “the Senate’s female conscience.” The restroom near the Senate chamber was designated the Rose Room in her honor. According to Resolution 29, the Rose Room was “the only room in the Capitol named after a woman.”
“Can you imagine that?” Senator Liu said. I laughed along with her. It was too absurd not to laugh.
Social change comes from a series of everyday demands for inclusion — a porcelain bell, the right to a bathroom, a lunch counter, or a water fountain.
Senator Liu’s Deputy Director pointed to the clock on the wall. It was time for their next meeting.
“So, are you going to run for office?”
This was her way of wrapping up the interview.
“Um…” She’d caught me off guard. “If I knew how. If I was a part of a group.”
“Do you know how hard it is for us to recruit women? There are no tricks to it. It’s the ability to tell your story — who you are, what your values are, what you think needs to be done, and how you can be effective at that.”
I thanked her for her time, stories, and inspiration. I meant it. Her generosity confirmed what I’ve observed over the last three years as I watched her navigate the city as a master mentor, always making time to speak to the next generation. There is not an aloof bone in her body. She has become a teacher of regional stature – educating the state, instead of just one classroom.
“You never know until you jump into it. I didn’t know there was a path until I won my first election. The second one got easier. The third, forth, fifth – they just got easier.”
When I was girl, I marched in demonstrations and chanted alongside thousands of women, “Out of the kitchens and into the streets!” My third grade friends and I were nicknamed women’s libbers long before we entered puberty, simply because we wanted to play kickball and tops at recess. It has never been easy to ask for what one wants, but liberation requires that we learn to do so.
I recall bumper stickers from my girlhood that read, “A woman’s place is in the House, and in the Senate” and buttons that stated, “The best man for a job may be a woman.”
Senator Carol Liu is the best woman for the job. Her place is in the Senate. And even though she is the best, and she has found her place, she is asking the rest of us women – will you run?
Resolving the decline of diverse women’s participation in public office will never happen if we, as women, don’t step up and support each other to take the positive risk of authentic leadership.