By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
The Greek goddess Minerva appears on the state’s official seal, but some Californians point to a Black female warrior, Califia, as a symbol who encourages others to leave their mark on the state Capitol and seal the deal with laws that seek to improve life for all Californians.
Throughout the state’s 173-year history, only 21 Black women have served in the legislature. But these few have fought for a seat at the table and the opportunity to make transformative change locally and nationally. Today their names are synonymous with California politics – women such as future members of Congress Barbara Lee; Diane Watson; Maxine Waters, who went viral reclaiming her time in 2017; and Karen Bass, recently elected Los Angeles’ first female and second Black mayor.
A historic number of women were elected to state government for 2023-2024 overall and the number of Black women serving in the legislature — five — also is an all-time high: assemblymembers Dr. Akilah Weber (D-San Diego), Mia Bonta (D-Oakland), Lori Wilson (D-Suisun City) and Tina McKinnor (D-Inglewood), and Sen. Lola Smallwood-Cuevas (D-Los Angeles).
Wilson, a first-year assemblymember, recalls attending a California Legislative Black Caucus annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast some years ago and hearing former state senator Holly Mitchell and former assemblywoman Dr. Shirley N. Weber speak. She was moved by their presence and the power in their words. Seeing African American women at their level, both rocking natural hair styles, was also a source of pride.
“It changed me and as a new leader I was like, ‘I want to have that level of impact in my community,’ and it changed the way I served in my community,” Wilson said.
Wilson feels a sense of duty to make sure other women can join her and replace her when her time is up.
“With term limits you constantly have to feed the legislature with Black women,” said Wilson, who chairs the Black Caucus. “You don’t just get to rest on the laurels of these Black women, you constantly have to send Black women here.”
Another new assemblymember, Mia Bonta, agreed.
“When you think kind of larger on what’s happening across the state of California, that’s why it’s incredibly important for us to have more [Black women],” shared Bonta, a Black Caucus member and the first Black Latina to serve in the California legislature.
“We know our stories, we have a commonality of experience, we have a perspective that is not held here,” she added. “We know what it’s like to be undervalued and overlooked, and we bring that to these halls. I think it makes us very uniquely qualified and positioned to be able to do the work of this state.”
Black women bring a great deal to the table, Dr. Shirley Weber said. “When you look at the pattern of the women within the [Black] Caucus, whether it’s Karen Basses of the world, or Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee, Holly Mitchell, or myself, when you start looking at what the women have done, they’ve really been stellar legislators, taking on some of the hard issues of social justice, but also taking on some of the necessary issues of families and health care and social services.”
Dr. Weber left the Assembly to serve as secretary of state, the first African American woman to do so. She doesn’t knock men’s contributions, but said Black women have always done yeoman’s work.
“They’re the Harriet Tubmans,” she said. “They don’t just talk about it, but they get it done. They’ve developed a tremendous reputation as people of integrity. With five women in the caucus, we should look for some really great things.”
Editor’s Note: “A Powerful Sisterhood,” is a series highlighting the contributions of past and present Black women lawmakers in California.