The XX Factor

What Victory for Women’s Rights Looks Like

California Governor Jerry Brown needs to not veto all the legislation his state’s assembly just passed.

Photo by Max Whittaker/Getty Images

When the curtain fell on California’s legislative session, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins released a bland statement celebrating its accomplishments. In it, she singled out a water bond, an on-time budget, and a bill that would cut down plastic bag use. What Atkins failed to mention: The state’s first openly gay speaker had just wrapped up one of the most women-friendly legislative sessions ever.

That puts California on vastly different footing than many state legislatures around the country that have been hacking away at women’s rights— including an astounding 200-plus restrictions on reproductive rights over the last three years, according to the Guttmacher Institute. But in California, “Women came out in a much better position than they have in past years,” Kathy Kneer, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, told me.


None of the legislature’s work is a done deal. Gov. Jerry Brown has until the end of the month to veto bills passed this session. But even if the governor tosses any of the bills (and it’s unlikely that he will), the sheer number of measures passed is a very positive sign for California’s women, and, in turn, women across the country.

Here’s what passed:

  • A bill requiring the state’s commercial airports to offer a clean, private space for mothers to breastfeed or pump.
  • A bill barring the sterilization of prison inmates
  • A bill establishing timelines for local law enforcement to process rape kits.
  • A bill expanding the definition of the word “harm” for the purposes of a restraining order to include and protect minors who were present during an act of domestic violence.
  • A bill making it easier for pregnant graduate students to finish their studies.
  • A bill bolstering Title IX enforcement.
  • A bill strengthening the California attorney general’s oversight of hospital mergers (mergers that could limit access to abortion services).
  • A bill requiring colleges to adopt an “affirmative consent” model in their sexual assault policies.
  • A bill ensuring all California workers have the right to earn and use three paid sick days a year.


At least two of those bills – the hospital mergers measure and paid sick leave – don’t target women specifically. But they will have a disproportionate impact on women. The Shriver Report on women and poverty has listed paid sick days as the most important reform that could be made to improve the lives of working women.

An honorable mention goes to a bill that was tabled before the end of the session but would have made California the first state to cover diapers under welfare benefits. That jump-started a national dialogue about working moms and the cost of diapers (and possibly marked the first time a lawmaker tweeted Eminem lyrics to make her case).

This session marks the first time a chamber of the state Legislature has been led by women on both side of the aisle: Atkins leads the majority, and the Assembly minority is helmed by Connie Conway, who in 2010 became the first female Assembly Republican leader in 30 years. That means that while the legislature was busy debating these measures, the face of the opposition was often female.


Despite the impressive list of measures that passed, there’s room for more: An effort to overturn the state’s Maximum Family Grant rule—a state provision that denies welfare benefits to new children in families that received benefits 10 months before the child’s birth—stalled. Jamelle Bouie wrote earlier this year in Slate that such laws are “designed to make life more difficult for low-income mothers, to thrust them deeper into poverty, and thereby discourage births.”


Still, California offers a rare glimmer of hope that victory for women at the state level doesn’t just mean successfully beating back efforts to curb freedoms, it means actually expanding them.

Kneer objects to those who might dismiss the Legislature’s work this session as an outlier from whacky, liberal California. The state’s demographics actually make it a harbinger for what could be coming in statehouses around the country, she said.

“The biggest demographic shift that’s happened is the emergence of Latino voters and the emergence of Asian Pacific Islanders,” Kneer said. “And we have, in fact, a changing demographic that tends to favor reproductive health. That’s why it’s going to happen eventually in these other states—Latinos don’t just live in California anymore.”