The son of an immigrant single mother, California state senator Kevin de León has an intimate understanding of women’s hardships, especially those faced by low-income women and women of color. “I have the political space and credibility to act upon polices that are critical for the overall wellbeing of families, particularly single mothers,” he said. As the highest-ranking Democrat in Sacramento, de León is now using his power to elevate the state’s economy by advocating for women.
There’s a plaque in California President Pro Tempore Kevin de León’s office that reads, “2009 Breastfeeding Champion.”
He laughs about it, but it’s not exactly a joke. De León—the progressive Democratic senator from Los Angeles who is concerned about the welfare of low-income women in the state—has authored several pieces of legislation to support breastfeeding by new mothers.
He decided to sponsor legislation after learning low-income women and women of color breastfeed at a much lower rate than wealthy or white women and breastfeeding reduces a child’s risk for infections and chronic diseases such as diabetes, asthma and obesity, which can have long-term, expensive consequences for individuals, their families and communities.
The idea of curbing the racial and class health inequities was enough to overcome any awkwardness de León initially felt taking on this issue. Two of his bills became law and today, hospitals are required to support breastfeeding by all first-time mothers.
The breastfeeding laws exemplify the road de León chose as a leader. The son of an immigrant single mother, he has an intimate understanding of women’s hardships, especially those faced by low-income women and women of color. In turn, as the highest-ranking Democrat in the California state legislature, he is using his power to champion women’s economic, social and political wellbeing.
“I have the political space and credibility to act upon polices that are critical for the overall wellbeing of families, particularly single mothers,” he said.
Viewing the World Through a Feminist Lens
The California state capitol has seen a decline of women legislators in recent years; of the 120 seats, women occupy only 31.
A man zealously championing women’s issues could easily be interpreted as paternalistic or patronizing. But de León simply wants progress in areas that are important to him. And he’ll do whatever is necessary.
“If you want me to take the lead, I’ll do so,” he once told a female state senator. “If you want me to stand behind, be your support and back you up, I will do so also.”
De León emphasized his solidarity is not part of some political calculation to win votes. Feminism is just part of the lens through which he naturally views the world. He said, “I didn’t grow up with a father.”
Instead, he was raised in San Diego surrounded by women—his mother, grandmother, aunt and two older half-sisters. His mother, a Mexican immigrant who spoke little English, paid the rent by cleaning wealthy homes on the opposite side of town. The family took public transportation everywhere. He wore hand-me-downs of his mother’s clients. He was only five years old when his mother left him home alone, not returning until after 8 PM sometimes. She had no choice.
“I witnessed how hard my mother worked to pay the bills,” said de León. “I saw the pain and stress of my mother, the tears she cried.”
Personal Is Political
What makes de León such a powerful legislative advocate for women is that he knows their stories are his. A cursory look at the bills he sponsors and supports reveals the influence de Leon’s life experience had on his political career.
He supported the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, which extended overtime pay rights to nannies, childcare providers, caregivers and attendants to the elderly—jobs mostly held by immigrant women and women of color. He pushed the state to increase access to childcare for women who qualify under CalWORKs, California’s welfare-to-work program, because he knows childcare is necessary for working mothers. And he supported the minimum wage increase where two-thirds of impacted workers are women.
He also helped pass what is now the strongest fair pay law in the nation, the California Fair Pay Act. This law has the potential to close the gender pay gap in California and is especially important for women of color. In 2015, African American women earned only 63 cents for every dollar white men earn, and for Latinas it was worse—only 43 cents.
Good for the Economy
Paying attention to women’s struggles is part of de León’s passion, but it also makes good sense for California’s economy. After all, women make up nearly half of the workforce and are breadwinners or co-breadwinners for 60 percent of American families. Yet they fall behind on nearly every economic measure.
U.S. Census statistics show nationally, one-third of families led by single mothers are poor. The situation is much worse when you break apart the data by race: Half of African American, Latina and Native American single mothers live in poverty in the U.S.
The situation is hardly better in California. Though the state enjoys an economic boom, severe cutbacks to safety net services during the Great Recession have wreaked havoc. The poverty rate of single mothers is now five times that of married couple families.
“It’s the best and the worst of times,” de León said. “We’re the seventh largest economy in the world but the positive impacts of the economy have not touched everybody.” He emphasized low-income women and women of color are most impacted by this dichotomy. And his personal connection to these women is what helps drives his work now.
“It’s my lived reality and because I lived it, I have the space to voice my opinion and move measures that help improve the human condition—for all individuals, but in particularly for working families, single mothers, immigrants.”