The Fab Five: Shattering L.A. County’s Glass Ceiling

An all-women board now presides over L.A. County’s 10-million-plus residents.

The Fab Five: Shattering L.A. County's Glass Ceiling

Asked when there would be enough women on the U.S. Supreme Court, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously replied: “When there are nine.”

It seems the voters of Los Angeles agree. With the election of Holly J. Mitchell in L.A.’s 2nd District in November, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors—the largest local government in the nation—has made history with the first all-women board in its more than 150-year history.

The five supervisors (known as “county commissioners” elsewhere) are some of the most powerful elected local officials in the nation. The board’s members were once nicknamed the Five Little Kings, though the current board has garnered a different moniker: the Fab Five.

Seven years ago, only one of the five supervisors was a woman. Now, Supervisors Kathryn Barger (R), Janice Hahn (D), Sheila Kuehl (D), Mitchell (D) and Hilda L. Solis (D) control the board’s $38 billion annual budget, presiding over more than 10 million residents and, if it were a nation, the 19th-largest economy in the world.

Each of these supervisors is a political powerhouse in her own right. Before her election to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, Mitchell served as a California state senator and chair of the state Senate’s budget and fiscal review committee. Solis was secretary of Labor under former President Barack Obama, making her the first Latina to serve in the U.S. Cabinet. In 1994, Kuehl became the first openly gay person elected to the California state Legislature. Hahn previously served in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Barger, before joining the board herself, was a chief deputy for a previous L.A. County supervisor.

The Fab Five: Shattering L.A. County's Glass Ceiling

This article originally appears in the Winter 2021 issue of Ms. Become a member today to read more reporting like this in print and through our app.

The election of this historic new leadership team is “an important milestone for the County of Los Angeles and an important signal, really, to every elected body in the country,” Mitchell said. “When women reach a plurality of any elected body, there’s a stark difference in the nature of policymaking. There’s a renewed focus on issues that are germane to women and girls.”

The research backs up Mitchell’s assertion: Women’s political leadership tends to create more equal and caring societies. When elected, women often work harder to represent all of their constituents’ interests and are more likely to focus on policies that affect women and families, according to the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London.

The Fab Five: Shattering L.A. County's Glass Ceiling
“When women reach a plurality of any elected body, there’s a stark difference in the nature of policymaking,” said Mitchell, pictured here with Vice President Kamala Harris. “There’s a renewed focus on issues that are germane to women and girls.” (@HollyJMitchell / Twitter)

Women also tend to bring a more collaborative leadership style to politics, as is currently reflected in Los Angeles.

“It’s an understood way of governing where we don’t all have to race to the top to get credit for something. We can share in that role of governance and coming up with ideas,” Solis told Ms. “You’re not working just on being a Democrat or Republican. It’s really about serving the needs of 10 million residents.”

Barger—the only Republican on the board—agreed. “I believe that women bring a different sensibility to this role. Typically, we see things with a little more compassion and more of a collaborative spirit,” she said.

And that collaborative spirit and focus on the needs of constituents is sorely required in Los Angeles right now, as Southern California has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. And, as is true in much of the country, women—and especially women of color—have borne the burden of this crisis.

“When I think about … the disproportionate impact this virus and the economic pandemic that has ensued will quite frankly have on women, and we recognize how many of us are essential workers—our teachers, our child care providers, [workers] in the restaurant industry, the hospitality industry—it’s important to have that [gender-based] lens in policymaking,” Mitchell explained.

“Women have been very, very heavily impacted,” Solis agreed. “Many of them are in the essential sector of work and have either lost jobs or had to take pay cuts or have been overly exposed to COVID.”

As this historic all-women board faces a once-in-a-century health crisis, as well as the day-to-day responsibilities of governing the largest county in the U.S., they’re also looking to the future—to a day when an all-women legislative body is the norm, not the exception.

“The five of us are standing on the shoulders of so many women who went before us in organizing, in advocacy and certainly in elective office,” Kuehl told Ms. “Wherever we have benefited from the people who went before us, we need to step up and give a hand to the people who are coming after us.”

Hahn reminisced, “I grew up seeing my dad, the original Supervisor Hahn, serve on this powerful board of five men. Now, serving on a board of five women means a lot to me personally, but what I want most out of this historic moment is for girls and young women to see us and know that they are full of potential. Being a woman is not a disadvantage in leadership—it is an asset.”

Mitchell added: “I’m proud to be a member of a body that made history by my election, making us a board of all women. I will be more proud when the world and the state and the county sees the collective power of us working together to help navigate this county into the future.”

As Barger put it: “The glass ceiling is more than shattered in L.A. County.”

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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.