More than thirty states have elected female governors. Will California finally join them?

(Walter J. Zeboski/Associated Press)

More than thirty states have elected female governors. Will California finally join them?

California Politics

Mark Z. Barabak

March 20, 2024

NOTE TO COPY AGENCY: I didn’t put 1990 in the caption because apparently that hurts SEO because bots think it’s an old story/mzb

In the 173 years that California has been a state, it has had 40 governors.

Democrats, Republicans, members of the Unionist and Know-Nothing parties.

Merchants, lawyers, former mayors.

A bodybuilder turned movie star. Two movie stars, actually.

But never a woman.

It’s a fact that stands out, just like Half Dome. After all, this is a state that sees itself as a progressive trailblazer and a bastion of open-minded opportunity and possibility


made history in 1992 by becoming the first two women to be elected to serve as U.S. senators simultaneously.

And yet, as Mindy Romero, director of USC’s Center for Inclusive Democracy, put it, “We still have that glass ceiling” when it comes to the governor’s office.

However, this hegemony of exclusively white men could finally come to an end in 2026.

Democrats Eleni Kounalakis, California’s first female lieutenant governor; Toni Atkins, the first women to lead both the Assembly and Senate, and former state Comptroller Betty Yee have all filed to succeed term-limited Gavin Newsom. Each of them is a credible candidate, in a large and unusually varied field.

Of course, it’s far too early to judge a match in two years; no one knows what will happen in the presidential election in about seven months. But California voters could make history in several ways in 2026.

Democratic Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta, a possible gubernatorial candidate, would become the state’s first Filipino-American governor. State Schools Director Tony Thurmond, a fellow Democrat who launched his candidacy last fall, wants to become California’s first Black and Latino governor. Atkins would be the state’s first openly LGBTQ+ governor, as well as its first female CEO.

These would all be remarkable achievements.

But in a state where women outnumber men among registered voters, electing a female governor would not only fill a glaring void in the state’s leadership but also end one of California’s strangest political divides .

According to the Center for America Women and Politics at Rutgers University, 49 women, 30 Democrats and 19 Republicans, have been governors in 32 states. A dozen states currently have female top executives.

Arizona holds the record, with five women as governor. Kansas, New Hampshire and Oregon each chose three. A handful of states have had two.

Why none in California?

There doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for it, at least not in recent decades, when women finally began to gain a degree of political equality and attain the status of vying for the state’s highest elected offices.

It cannot simply be written off as misogyny.

In addition to electing three female U.S. senators, Californians have also elevated numerous women to statewide offices. Fifty of Sacramento’s 120 legislative seats are held by women, and about a third of California’s congressional delegation is female.

All five members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors are women, and Los Angeles has a female mayor, as do San Francisco and numerous other cities from Rancho Cordova in the north to Murrieta in the south.

There isn’t a long history of women running for governor of California. Only a handful have had a serious chance: Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Kathleen Brown and Republican Meg Whitman.

Feinstein came closest to victory. In 1990, she became the first woman in state history to win a major party’s nomination for governor. She narrowly lost to Republican Senator Pete Wilson.

Bill Carrick, the chief media strategist for Feinstein’s campaign, recalls that she barely led the fight until the outbreak of the First Gulf War. Support for Wilson grew as President George HW Bush united the country and assembled an international coalition that ultimately turned back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

“You saw a big Republican uptick as a result,” Carrick said.

How is it possible that voters embrace the Republican Party and its candidates to reward Bush and his party? Or did the dangers of war make them doubt a woman’s ability to serve as governor of California?

Carrick isn’t sure. Maybe it was both.

At the time, he said, even “some liberal-minded people” had doubts about Feinstein’s political viability. “I don’t think there’s that hesitation today,” Carrick said.

(If you go back further, to 1969, when Feinstein first ran for San Francisco Board of Supervisors, everyone told her, including her father, that a woman couldn’t win. She proved them wrong.)

Feinstein exacted a measure of revenge two years after her defeat in the governor’s race, when she defeated Wilson’s hand-picked successor, John Seymour, to claim a Senate seat that she held until her death in September.

The success of Feinstein and others that came after setting a much clearer path for those who followed in their footsteps.

“As the years go by, female candidates are clearly having an easier time than ever before,” said Gale Kaufman, a veteran Sacramento strategist who has helped elect many Democratic women.

“It wasn’t that long ago that people asked, ‘Can a woman do the job of governor?’” Kaufman said. “I don’t think anyone would ask that question now.”

That bodes well for those running for office in 2026. It doesn’t guarantee that a woman will be elected California’s next governor, but it seems much more likely.

It’s about time.


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