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In politics, don't put the blame on dames or their names

January 9, 2012 | 12:38 pm

Sen. Dianne Feinstein
Is our California democracy more democratic than Iraq's? Than Tunisia's?

If you answered "yes, of course," does that mean that a proposed ballot measure I'll describe in a moment will fly with Californians?

I doubt it, but here's the back story:

Iraq's constitution, adopted in 2005, reserves 25% of parliamentary seats for women, to thwart the Islamists who might hold more influence in the post-Saddam Hussein government and who don't want women in public political roles at all.

And in Tunisia, the rules require that half the names on a ballot be women's, and that the names be alternated by gender so people can't do straight-ticket guy voting. The assembly that's writing Tunisia's constitution will probably end up with a document putting women in about one-third of Tunisia's assembly.

So what does any of this have to do with California politics?

A proposed initiative is collecting signatures to place on the ballot a state constitutional amendment to double the number of legislators in Sacramento -- and require one female, one male.

This would mean 160 Assembly members and 80 state Senators, and some very crowded women's bathrooms.

Rose-Ann-VuichWhen Rose Ann Vuich was elected California's first female state Senator in 1976, there was no bathroom for women legislators -- only for men. They had to convert a closet into a bathroom, and it's still called "The Rose Room."

(Vuich's campaign prefigured Sarah Palin's by more than 30 years; Vuich dinged her GOP opponent for supporting a "freeway to nowhere.") And every day, several times a day, whenever one of her colleagues addressed the Senate's membership as "gentlemen," Vuich rang a bell on her desk to remind them that she was there -- and, implicitly, that more women would follow her.

There are two things about this measure I don't expect Californians to like. The first is minting more politicians. Californians don't think much of the ones they have already. Doubling their number is doubling down on dislike.

And the second -- a 50-50 ratio between men and women legislators -- well, as desperately as California and the nation need more women in visible and official positions of authority, voters would balk at being told to do it.

California was the first state to send two women senators to D.C. Maine, Washington and New Hampshire followed suit. There's now a grand total of -- are you ready? -- 17 women in the U.S. Senate. Women are just a tidge over half the U.S. population but only 17% of the U.S. Senate.

The breakthrough year for women in the Senate was 1992, the Year of the Woman, after the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings showed an all-male committee questioning female witnesses.

California's equal-representation proposal is the brainchild of someone named B.C. Keith. The secretary of state's office refers to B.C. Keith with the pronoun "her," so I have to assume Keith's a woman.

I also have to think that, like British blockbuster women writers J.K. Rowling and P.D. James, B.C. Keith understands that a more gender-neutral name, using initials only rather than female first names, can make a difference to male readers or voters, whether you're selling a novel or a political idea. It's a sad state of monogrammed affairs.

Given that the 2010 elections meant fewer women in Congress than there had been in 20 years, is it possible that women candidates, like women authors, or maybe even women in business or science, feel they've got a better shot at succeeding if they, to use the Shakespeare line, feel constrained to "unsex" themselves in their names?

Keith's measure isn't likely to go anywhere -- but what if there's a chance that a D.G. Feinstein or a H.R. Clinton or a M.S. Curie would have a better shot at success than a Dianne or a Hillary or a Marie? If so, maybe there's a little something we can learn from the Tunisians after all.

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Top photo: Sen. Dianne Feinstein is seen on Aug. 24, 2005 at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. Credit: Robert Lachman / Los Angeles Times. Bottom photo: Rose Ann Vuich is shown in 1976. Credit: Associated Press

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