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Leading Women in California Advocacy and Politics

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

By Lindsay Turpin

Women advocates and politicians across California are responsible for making some of the largest waves of positive change that improve quality of life for all. Through tireless legislative efforts for topics such as health equity and the reduction of corruption and discrimination, women have played a key role in dismantling the unfair systems that cause disparities to this day. As Women’s History Month comes to a close, we cannot forget the figures who act in the interest of women and other disadvantaged groups year-round.

“If you look at all the change that has happened, throughout history, it's really been driven by women,” said Rhonda Smith, Executive Director of the California Black Health Network (CBHN). The JCI team recently had an opportunity to interview Rhonda - check out our podcast to hear the full interview!

Rhonda Smith shifted into a career in health advocacy after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had formerly worked in consulting, marketing, and business management for Eli Lilly and DuPont. After recovering from cancer, she realized she wanted to find work that sparked her passions and began providing consulting services for women dealing with breast cancer. Rhonda also worked on a research study in South Florida that revealed to her the extensiveness of health disparities that Black and Latina women were experiencing. Later, she relocated to California to kickstart her advocacy career, working for the Susan G. Komen Circle of Promise California Initiative, the LiveHealthy OC Initiative, Integrative Medicine for the Underserved, and the Life Serve Youth Foundation.

Rhonda’s advocacy expertise is clear: she has found successful ways to develop campaigns engaging communities across the state to hear their greatest concerns, partner with other organizations that address similar health equity issues, and draw in younger advocates through programs such as CBHN’s Health Equity Advocacy Training Program. Fighting to resolve Black health equity issues such as bias in the medical field, limited access to quality care and insurance, and racially biased medical algorithms, Rhonda’s advocacy throughout California has created coalitions and enacted positive change.

Stay tuned in the first week of May for the first “Black Health Equity Advocacy Week”, which Rhonda and CBHN are organizing with the California Legislative Black Caucus.

The other influential figures in California advocacy and politics that we have chosen to highlight (though they encompass just a few of the phenomenal leaders in the state) are Aisha Wahab, Caroline Menjivar, Hydee Feldstein-Soto, Lindsey Horvath, and Sydney Kamlager Dove. Studying the actions of these politicians gives us insight into hot legislative topics of the moment.

Aisha Wahab, California State Senator for District 10 in the East Bay and Silicon Valley, is the first Afghan-American woman to be elected to public office in the United States, as well as the first Muslim and Afghan American to be elected to the State Senate of California. With a recent initiative to ban caste discrimination, she has faced extensive and violent Islamophobic threats from all over the world, but she will not back down. Wahab is adamant about protecting individuals from unfair and prevalent caste discrimination that occurs in job interviews, the technology industry, education, healthcare, and housing. This legislation follows Seattle’s recent ban of caste discrimination, and it was the first city to do that. By delineating caste discrimination specifically as unlawful, rather than its implied inclusion in California’s civil rights law, Wahab and other lawmakers hope to stamp out remaining malpractices, clearly banning “system(s) of social stratification.” Wahab says she will gladly endure the threats she has received to advocate for clearer anti-discrimination laws.

Caroline Menjivar is another State Senator representing District 20, or the Inland Empire and Pomona Valley. Though she grew up in the San Fernando Valley, her parents immigrated from El Salvador and her family experienced economic difficulties throughout her childhood. Menjivar had to help her mother provide for the family after her parents separated, and they even were evicted during the housing crisis. On top of this, Menjivar’s religious family members rejected her sexual identity as a lesbian. Despite these hardships, she managed to work as an EMT, then serve in the Marine Corps for seven years. She subsequently worked in the LA Mayor’s Gender Equity Office and thus began her era in politics. Menjivar assumed office in December 2022 and has already spearheaded important legislation for sexual health and menstrual equity. She recently introduced a bill to provide free condoms in high schools and increase access to the HPV vaccine in order to combat high levels of sexually transmitted infections among young people. This legislation would also prevent stores from refusing to provide contraception simply because of someone’s age. The menstrual equity act she initiated in January aims to address the high price of period products that disproportionately hurts BIPOC communities. A survey found that 23% of Black and 24% of Latina women have had trouble affording period products in the past year. Within just four months in the legislature, Menjivar has proved that she is an advocate for gender equity and sexual health and will passionately promote legislation to improve those areas.

Hydee Feldstein-Soto was recently elected as the first woman and first Latina Los Angeles City Attorney. Originally from San Juan, Puerto Rico, she has an extensive law career in Los Angeles and has worked at several renowned international law firms. Stepping into the City Attorney office at a time where a multitude of corruptions have been revealed in Los Angeles politics, Feldstein-Soto has said she intends to confront systemic racism by investigating the City Council recordings, collect data about racial inequities, reduce incarceration and improve mental health and job training services, and improve record clearance for crimes that are now legal, such as possession of marijuana. Having a City Attorney who approaches legal proceedings from an anti-racist standpoint will be crucial for the reduction of corruption and biased systems within Los Angeles. Further, she aims to expedite the process of reducing homelessness, domestic violence, drugs and human trafficking, and senior abuse. Feldstein-Soto has built her accomplished career as a Latina in legal spaces that were incredibly male dominated, so she is prepared to conquer this office as the first woman in the position and will undoubtedly clear the path for future women to resume the role.

JCI is proud to know and support Lindsey Horvath, and even recorded a podcast episode with her last year. She was recently elected as a Los Angeles County Supervisor for the 3rd District, encompassing cities such as Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, San Fernando, Calabasas, Westlake Village, and Malibu. She was formerly a City Councilmember in West Hollywood, and has been a strong advocate for LGBTQ communities and younger generations. Horvath has recently led initiatives to reduce juvenile detention and increase LA metro safety without extra police presence. A motion she co-authored with Supervisor Holly Mitchell aims to create a “structured release” for those in juvenile detention to best reintegrate them into their communities and provide opportunities for them to improve their circumstances. “Young people who are in their critical years of development need and deserve improved coordination between the justice system, courts, and attorneys so that everyone is working together in their best interest without delay,” Horvath said. She and the five other county supervisors, who are all women, have also been reevaluating the structure of Los Angeles government itself. In late February, they approved an independent review of the governance structure of the Board in order to ensure the most ethical political practices for the ever-expanding region of Los Angeles, where the five of them control a $44 Billion budget. These massive systemic changes are just a few of the solutions Horvath has offered in the first few months of her tenure.

Sydney Kamlager Dove was recently elected to California’s 37th Congressional district, covering Culver City, Inglewood, Mid City, Century City, Pico-Robertson, West Adams, Crenshaw, Baldwin Hills, and more. She began a career in advocacy after observing the Rodney King riots and the stark disparities they highlighted. Working at Rebuild LA and the Los Angeles Festival, she helped to make a positive impact on low-income communities through job creation and arts programs. Kamlager-Dove later served on the LA County Commission on Children and Families and the LA Community College Board, diving further into her work for improved education and career development opportunities for underserved communities. Prior to her current role as a congresswoman, she served in the California State Assembly and the State Senate. A recent initiative in the House of Representatives that she has been influential in is the effort to implement the Equal Rights Amendment into the Constitution. Representatives Cori Bush and Ayanna Pressley are leading a caucus for this amendment, but Kamlager-Dove as a freshman legislator is active in the initiative and serves as a vice chair. Unfortunately, republicans in the Senate created a resolution that requires the amendment to be reintroduced before it could be added to the Constitution, and a disturbing number of republicans would resist the amendment that has been essential for moving toward gender and racial equality. Though this toxic political climate can be highly discouraging, passionate women in office such as Sydney Kamlager-Dove, Cori Bush, and Ayanna Pressley can give us hope as long as they keep fighting.

What underlines all of the careers of these advocates and politicians is determination in the face of highly corrupt systems that seek to remove their power. But the fact that they hold these positions is a sign of progress in itself, so we must support them and the generations that follow in the creation of a more equitable and ethical society.


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