Gender Equality Debate Gives New Life to Old Ideas in Sacramento

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California Democrats are trying a new tactic with not-so-new poverty-fighting measures. (Craig Miller/KQED)

Are you a liberal Democrat who supports increased welfare payments or expanded access to subsidized child care or paid family leave?

Your best bet may just be to frame it as gender issue -- not a way to fight poverty.

That's the tactic many Democrats in the California Legislature are taking this year as they push bills that, in many cases, have failed in years past.

Ange-Marie Hancock, a professor of political science and gender studies at the University of Southern California, said it's a pretty smart approach.

"There's really a sense that there's not a lot of space in the public discourse for structural anti-poverty policies," she said, "so I think female candidates and elected officials are making a calculation that they are not going to get these policies through if they are framed as a poverty issue."

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She added, "They have a better shot at things politically, particularly with Republicans and independents, if they frame these as gender equality issues."

Last week, female lawmakers -- including Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) -- held a news conference to push a package of bills touted as the "women’s economic security agenda." They include measures to repeal a decades-old law that prohibits families on public assistance who have another child from receiving more aid (the so-called welfare-queen law); a proposal to expand access to state-subsidized child care and give child care providers bargaining rights; one that aims to narrow the gender pay gap; and legislation to require large retailers to give blue-collar workers more predictable schedules.

Separately, Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles) is proposing an expansion to California's paid family leave policies . (Nationally, the White House is also talking about the issue -- largely in the context of paid family leave, which the United States lacks.)

Most of these are not new ideas. State Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), for example, has repeatedly tried to repeal the law limiting public assistance to families with new kids. But in the past, she's pushed it as a poverty-fighting measure, not a gender equality issue -- same as with child care access and other programs and policies near and dear to Democrats.

Take how Atkins framed the package last week, according to the Los Angeles Times: “Women continue to increase our role and our impact on our economy. ... It’s vital we pursue the policies that help ensure opportunity and equality. These actions will help more California women not only participate in the economic recovery but also in building our economic future.”

So it's not just about gender -- it's also about how that issue intersects with California's economic strength, something that may resonate more with moderate Democrats, independents and even some Republicans.

USC's Hancock said some social issues, like reproductive rights, are at play, too. While politicians have taken for granted that support or opposition to something like access to abortion is split along party lines, it actually isn't.

"When you look at reproductive health policies, there are broad cross sections politically, and among religious groups, that support them," she said.

Hancock has written extensively about the "welfare queen" debate -- which led to huge reforms and cutbacks at the national level in 1996. And while things aren't changing overnight (after all, we still get treated to disingenuous debates over whether "feminism" is a bad word), Hancock said that men and women alike do seem to be giving more credence to real gender disparities, and not just in Sacramento.

Most recently, there was the Ellen Pao discrimination case, which was covered breathlessly by both tech and mainstream media and by most accounts has at least prompted discussion of the huge gender gaps in Silicon Valley. Before that, there was tech executive Sheryl Sandberg's wildly successful book on women and the workforce; and Anne-Marie Slaughter's 2012 Atlantic article, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All." In short, said Hancock, all were serious debates about gender inequities that were mainstream, particularly among middle- and upper-class women.

And who else is talking about it? Presumed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who recently put the issue front and center at a Silicon Valley talk.

Hancock said that's wildly different than in 2008, when Clinton avoided these issues as a presidential candidate. She said that campaign showed Americans just how differently women in politics are treated -- regardless of whether those female candidates tried to make their gender an asset in the campaign ... or attempted to ignore it.

"People were able to observe just how different things could be for female candidates -- and not just Clinton, but [Sarah] Palin, too," she said. "They saw they weren't protected by pretending you didn't have these issues, that people would ask about it anyway and bring it up as a criticism of your ability to lead."

Now the question seems to be whether this alternate approach will pay political dividends for Democrats. All of the proposed Sacramento legislation will increase the cost and size of state government -- something that the state's most prominent Democrat, Gov. Jerry Brown, is usually loath to support.