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From sexism to bipartisanship, former legislators recall what it was like to work in the Capitol decades ago

Delaine Eastin held up an old issue of a Capital Journal magazine, its cover featuring five women in smart outfits and text on the side: “The freshman, a capital class.”

At the time, in the mid-80s to early 90s, those five were among a small group of women serving in the California Legislature.

Today, the legislature includes 50 women: 18 senators and 32 assemblymembers. That’s nearly a 30% jump from the previous session, and more than a 200% increase from when the Women’s Caucus was formed in 1985.

“I was a triple minority, a Republican among Democrats, a moderate Republican among conservatives and a woman among men,” Rebecca Morgan, who represented Bay Area communities in the Senate from 1984-1993, said during a recent presentation hosted by California’s secretary of state, Cal State Fullerton and the State Archives.

The oral histories of these two former state legislators, Morgan and Eastin, are the latest to be housed at the State Archives; Secretary of State Shirley Weber announced the re-launch of the Archives’ oral history project during the virtual discussion this week.

For Morgan, her time in public service was “a wonderful but lonely experience.” But that feeling of loneliness, Eastin said, was what made women in Sacramento stick up for one another.

“Women were especially close to each other in those days,” Eastin, a Democrat who served parts of Alameda and Santa Clara counties in the Assembly from 1986-1994, said. “Women did look after one another because we sort of had to, because we would be dismissed or spoken down to in some instances unless we stood up for each other.”

There were plenty of examples of sexism the female legislators faced, the two said, such as angry male colleagues when Morgan, one cold January morning, decided to wear a pantsuit, becoming the first woman to wear pants on the Senate floor. And then there was that time the Assembly speaker referred to the Women’s Caucus as the “Lipstick Caucus,” Eastin, 75, said.

“All hell broke loose,” Eastin recalled. “The women were furious.”

The speaker ultimately apologized, Eastin said, and spearheaded a dress code change. Within a week, all women could wear pants on the Senate side, she said. (Women were already allowed to wear pants on the Assembly side, she said.)

When the Women’s Caucus was formed in 1985, there were only 15 women on the roster. Now, the caucus has 50 women on its roster.

“I remember in the early days, there were people who wouldn’t let me on the members’ elevator because I was a girl, and I couldn’t possibly be a member,” Eastin said.

After leaving the legislature, Eastin went on to become the first and only woman to date to be elected superintendent of public instruction, and Morgan founded the Morgan Family Foundation, which awards money to projects related to family, education and environmental conservation.

While difficult for women to be legislators, Morgan said the “bipartisan” and “civil” nature then allowed for legislative successes — something bygone in current political climates, she said.

“The legislation I introduced usually got passed because of the bipartisan nature,” Morgan, 84, said. “People were pretty civil in those days, and I’m not seeing that these days and that troubles me a lot.”

Eastin agreed: “Our job is to create a more perfect union, and we can only do that if we work together,” she said.

The Archives, created in 1985, includes records of state legislators, government agencies and offices, courts and local government.

Historian Natalie Fousekis, director of CSUF’s Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History, sat down with both women in November 2021 to record their interviews to be included in the Archives.

“This effort to record history on tape, preserve and make it available for future research, compensates for gaps that may exist because of those who don’t have the time to actually write down their records,” Weber said.

The oral history project, which commenced in 1986, has filmed more than 200 interviews thus far. California has one of the largest archives in the country with more than 350 million records, according to the secretary of state’s office.

Members of the public can submit suggestions for future oral history interviews, state archivist Tamara Martin said.

Source: Orange County Register

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