Meet the Feminist Professor Running for California State Assembly

Dr. Vanessa Tyson was not planning to run for a seat in the California State Assembly. But when an incumbent announces he won’t be seeking reelection at the last minute and the opportunity presents itself to make a difference in your community through political office, what do you do? Prof T (as her students in the Department of Politics at Scripps College address her) decided to jump into her first race.

As lifelong feminist and environmentalist and longtime advocate for sexual assault survivors, Dr. Tyson has a history of working to make her community a better place. As a child, she was known for her love of politics (she was watching CSPAN regularly by the age of 6), her early feminist values and her requests for college admissions guides as birthday gifts. Tyson is a first-generation college graduate and credits her mother with stressing the importance of education throughout her childhood.

While an undergrad at Princeton, Tyson worked to reduce food waste in her campus dining hall—coming up with a solution that included saving food scraps, selling them to local pig farms and donating the proceeds to local homeless shelters—and convinced the Princeton Board of Trustees to make the university debt-free for all undergrads demonstrating financial need. Tyson’s plan was transformative and set a new precedent for college financial aid—many universities followed suit.

Dr. Tyson explained that one of her lifelong guiding principles has been advocating for marginalized groups. She often asks herself: how can we make things better for all moving forward? “You only have one life to live,” she said to Ms. “And so you have to be the person you want to be. Don’t let someone else’s idea of what is perfect get in the way of your idea of awesome.”

Post-undergrad, Tyson returned to her home state of California and worked in state politics, cutting her teeth as a staffer for former U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer and former U.S. Representative Juanita Millender-McDonald. She then worked as a committee consultant for the California State Senate Committee on Public Safety.

One of her core issues during her time as a Senate committee consultant was, “intervening in cycles of violence that land girls in lock-up as young as 14-years-old. Those girls don’t get there on their own. Lots of people have failed them,” Tyson explained. As a graduate student in Boston, Tyson once again stepped up to make a difference in the lives of girls and young women, starting a self-esteem/self-awareness program for female juvenile offenders through the Department of Youth Services in Massachusetts.

Now, Dr. Tyson is running for California State Assembly in her hometown of Whittier (57th district). Tyson told Ms. that she is focused on bettering the community she loves by investing in local schools and making college affordable; addressing the housing crisis by encouraging affordable housing development and increasing resources to address homelessness with compassion; and—as a longtime environmentalist—addressing climate change and supporting a green economy. “I understand that environmental issues are very tied to women and women’s bodies,” she said.

Though she faces a crowded field in the upcoming California primary, Tyson is determined and hopeful. “Every step along the way,” she explained, “I’ve been beating the odds.”


Maddy Pontz is a passionate feminist and storyteller. She’s currently a freelance writer and frequent Ms. contributor, and was previously the community engagement editor at Ms. You can find her on Twitter @MaddyPontz.