A Women’s Political Committee Celebrates 25 Years

The following is a guest blog is the final post in a series of three pieces written by Susan Rose. Susan Rose served for eight years on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors and is the former executive director of the Los Angeles City Commission on the Status of Women. She is a member of the board of trustees of Antioch University Santa Barbara. In the following piece, Susan highlights the important work done by the Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee as it celebrates its 25th anniversary. This piece spotlights the type of work that is integral to advancing women's political power and influence, the focus of part 1 and part 2 of this series. By Susan Rose The years 2012 and 2013 were times for celebrations and political victories for the feminist movement. Ms magazine celebrated its 40th year of publication and  Jan. 22, 2013 was the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that established the fundamental right to abortion. On the central coast of California, the Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee (SBWPC) celebrated its 25th anniversary and years of political victories. This PAC began in the late 1980’s, when a small group of women in Santa Barbara met for several months to discuss the lack of women in public office.  Over time, the group expanded and included a list of who’s who among female activists in the community.  (In full disclosure, the author was also a founding mother.) SBWPC asked the question, "can women have a significant impact at the local level?" Reflecting on 25 years of political activities, the answer was an unqualified yes.  Using an activist model, these feminists created a pipeline to elective office and demonstrated that change can occur on the local level. The SBWPC was born in January of 1988 with a  reception that brought out 250 women and men.  Betty Friedan was the keynote speaker. They quickly built a membership base that today includes both women and men.The time was right to organize! From the beginning, the SBWPC defined itself as a feminist organization.  Its mission states: “The Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee is dedicated to furthering gender equality and other feminist values through political and social action, and educational activities.  As a political action committee, we endorse the candidacies of women and men who actively support our goals and promote a feminist agenda.” During these last 25 years, the SBWPC has pursued the goal of gender equality and social change by electing women to public office. In 1988, the SBWPC endorsed the candidacies of  Dianne Owens and Gloria Ochoa, the first women to serve on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.  The smell of victory was sweet and led to more women entering the political realm to run for office. Since SBWPC’s founding, women have comprised as much as 80% of the County Board of Supervisors, served as mayors and District Attorney, and held seats in both houses of the state legislature. They also hold many positions on school boards and local commissions.  Not to mention, since 1999 Santa Barbara County has been represented by a woman in Congress. During its 25 years, the SBWPC has endorsed and contributed financial support to 95 candidates.  A total of fifty-six of those were women (59%).  Only four of the women lost. All candidates supported the feminist agenda. The SBWPC’s success is best demonstrated by its impact on public policy. Legislation and programs introduced by women elected to office in Santa Barbara has covered a broad range of issues including breast cancer, children, domestic violence, education, the environment, healthcare, housing, homelessness, human services, living wage, rape kits and reproductive rights. In its early days, the SBWPC board of directors created a set of tools that enabled them to elect feminist women to office.  These tools included: position papers, recruitment strategies, campaign skills workshops, candidate assessment teams, endorsements, state and federal PAC money, and media support. The position papers formed the basis for the organization’s feminist agenda and the criteria by which candidates received endorsements.  The  issues covered in the papers range from childcare to the ERA to immigration and reproductive rights.These tools are still in place today and guide the board in their process of endorsing candidates. Many of the first candidates to be endorsed by the PAC were founding board members, creating an early pipeline to elected office. In the current political climate, there is not only unfinished business for the feminist agenda but an imperative need to secure the gains that have been made.  To do that, more women must run for national office starting with local and statewide candidacies. Today, the SBWPC has a standing pipeline committee that focuses on recruiting women for future elections.  This committee is key to the continuing success of the organization.  Due to term limits in many local and state offices, more women need to be ready to run when vacancies occur.  As part of their function, this committee actively reaches out to prospective candidates. While other feminist organizations have declined or disbanded, the SBWPC has been able to sustain itself over 25 years because of a diverse board of women and a membership committed to addressing issues that are current and compelling. With the help of the 24 women on the board of directors, the Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee has created a culture where women in public office are the norm not the exception. These women have achieved political and electoral success by grass roots organizing, marching, mentoring, advocating and campaigning both through community activism and social media.  They are dedicated and committed to making a difference in the lives of women. The organizational model developed by the SBWPC has been tried and tested locally over the years and can be replicated in other communities. “All politics are local” said former speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neill.  He was right.