“I think we’re all aware that there are plenty of old boys networks in Congress,” Susan Davis, Congressional Representative for San Diego’s 53rd District, says from her Adams Avenue office. “But the women as a group tend to interact and learn a lot from one another.”
In this incoming 114th Congress, there are 84 women who will continue or begin work in the House of Representatives. Out of 435 seats in the House, the group of women that Davis is referring to is a small one, but given the reputation of Congress lately, the bipartisan nature of their support may be key to actually getting things done.
“I think as women, we often feel that we could solve problems quicker, that there is a little less ego involvement. The problem is, we’re not often given that opportunity because women do not chair as many committees. They just don’t have the same opportunities as our male counterparts.”
That disadvantage makes sense, given the numbers of female representatives, but Davis explains that it’s because of senority as well. As women are still working their ways up the ranks of the House, their numbers as senior members of committees, something of a currency in Congress, are very small. Nancy Pelosi stands out as perhaps the most visible woman, from her position as Speaker of the House to now Minority Leader. The Rules Committee does have a female chair too, an 84-year-old veteran from New York. Another woman made an attempt on the minority chair seat of the Energy and Commerce Committee (an “exclusive committee” according to Davis), but the member who had more senority, a man, was chosen instead.
For her part, Davis is a member of the Education Committee and serves as Chair of the Personnel Subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee. She’s fourth in the chain of command there, after a host of ranking members of the Armed Services Committee were unseated in 2010. Her road to Chair of the Personnel Subcommittee, which she took over in 2007, was similarly fast-tracked when she was “able to skip over a few people partly because they had other interests on the committee” and partly because she was in the right place at the right time.
“Frankly,” she continues, “a lot of people try and stay away from the Personnel Subcommittee because the decisions are really difficult there. So sometimes I think a lot of the men are not as interested in the committee. It tends to be populated a little more by women partly because we’re looking out for education and health issues in military families but also having to deal with a host of other issues, sexual assault, things like that come to the Personnel Committee. Even though we have male colleagues who maybe are interested, they haven’t been nearly as involved.”
California as a whole is a leader in sending women to the House of Representatives, with 17 out of our total 53 delegates. But for San Diego, Susan Davis is only the second female to represent the region (Lynn Schenk was the first, in 1994. She served for one term).
There are many theories about why women aren’t more represented in Congress. A big one is fundraising.
“Women haven’t traditionally been as good at fundraising,” which is a necessary part of running for public office, Davis says. “You have to do that, you have to be willing to get out there. I think it’s taken a while for women to do that because I think as a group they do not tend to participate as much either. … Women have a tendency to want to be in the background. They’re just more comfortable doing that so you have to really encourage women to come out. It’s not an easy thing to do. It certainly wasn’t easy for me and it’s not easy for others.”
One thing that is helpful in encouraging women to become more involved in politics is membership in a politically active women’s organization. For Davis, it was the League of Women Voters. She was involved in her son’s preschool and met a fellow mom who was also a member of the League. The group, an organization of women who help educate people about elections, was formed after the Suffrage Movement. During Davis’ time there, the members met in homes throughout the city and discussed issues that impacted San Diego, like land use or education. Davis, given her interest in education through a history of social work, became active in the education group and worked with an Indian reservation. She became president of the Leauge in 1977.
“That introduced me to government generally and the election process and the pros and cons of initiatives,” she explains. From there, Davis became active in different elections on behalf of individual candidates. With that, she became familiar with the fine art of getting elected to public office. When a seat became available on the Board of the San Diego Unified School District, she decided to run.
“It was an opportunity for me because I cared a great deal about education. Bussing just started, we had a new superintendent, I had two young children in the public school system.”
Another less-well-known reason for her running for the School Board seat was that her opponent was running on a platform of bringing prayer into schools. That didn’t feel appropriate to Davis and it motivated her to go for the seat even harder.
“But the chief motivation was to make sure that my kids got a good education and that I could help make a difference,” she adds.
She never intended to continue with a career in politics. Even when Willie Brown, then Speaker of the California State Assembly, called to ask her to run for state government, she politely declined.
“I was at work one day and he called me and told me that he wanted me to consider it. I basically said to him, ‘Mr. Speaker, I appreciate your asking but honestly I’ve got this great job. I have an office in La Jolla. I don’t really need that job.’”
But Mr. Speaker didn’t take no for an answer. He enlisted several women, including Dede Alpert, a member of the State Senate and an education leader from San Diego, to encourage Davis to run for the California Legislature. Eventually she was convinced and in 1994 she became a delegate. She was elected to her current seat as Representative for the 53rd Congressional District in 2003 and she says she doesn’t have her sights on any other political positions after this.
“I’ll let other people think about that,” she says with a smile.