A woman has signed a bill into state law for the first time in the state’s 171-year existence. Normally, California Governor Gavin Newsom signs the legislation, but he departed the state on Wednesday night for a family vacation in Central and South America. Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis is required to function as governor until he returns.
The Legislature passed a measure Thursday morning extending a rule prohibiting some renters from being removed until June. The bill needed to be signed into law on Thursday because the previous law was slated to expire on Friday, potentially evicting tens of thousands of renters.
It was a watershed moment for the nation’s most populated state, which has a progressive reputation yet has never elected a female governor.
“It was humbling. And I did feel that feeling of history,” added Kounalakis, who also signed a separate election-related measure on Thursday. “Women have been drafting legislation for many years… but no woman has ever signed a measure into law. And it seemed like a significant moment in history.”
California has elected a sizable number of female candidates to various statewide posts.
In 1992, Democratic women were elected to the United States Senate by voters. Dianne Feinstein continues to serve, while Barbara Boxer stepped down in 2017 and was succeeded by Kamala Harris, a former state attorney general who is currently vice president.
Female power in California was on full show at President Joe Biden’s recent state of the Union speech when Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stood behind him. Pelosi has been San Francisco’s congressional representative since 1987.
Kounalakis is California’s first female lieutenant governor. She is a former head of a real estate development business and served as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Hungary. In 2018, she was elected to succeed Newsom.
The state’s second-ranking executive has minimal authority. She votes to break ties in the state Senate and serves as a regent of the University of California, among other positions.
As Newsom did, those in the office occasionally exploit their position to increase name recognition for future statewide races.
According to Jean Sinzdak, assistant director of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women in Politics, women historically have not run for governor at the same rate as other posts.
According to her, women typically make up around 25% of gubernatorial candidates nationally. This is one of the reasons there have been just 45 female governors in the history of the United States.
“People have implicit biases against women in executive positions, even when they are the boss,” said Kim Nalder, a political science professor at California State University, Sacramento.
“When members of a legislature are elected, they become members of a group. It contributes to the positive assumptions regarding women’s ability to collaborate.”
California is one of only 19 states without a female governor. That is unlikely to alter this year, given Newsom’s reelection odds. However, that might change in 2026, when Newsom is not eligible to run again due to term restrictions.
California now has four women elected to statewide office and 38 women in the Legislature, which are record highs.
Along with Kounalakis, Treasurer Fiona Ma, Controller Betty Yee, Secretary of State Shirley Weber, and state Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins have all expressed an interest in running for governor in 2026.
Kounalakis said any woman with a statewide platform — including herself — should consider running for governor. However, with the election more than four and a half years away, she was hesitant to commit to candidacy.
“I believe it is critical for women who may run for governor to consider how we appreciate one another’s skilling because there is a lot of pressure on women not to support one another, but the only way we will see a woman governor in the future is if women help one another,” Kounalakis said.
On April 12, Newsom is set to return to the state. “The governor’s plans may have altered. However, he is a strong advocate for uplifting others around him, particularly members of marginalized groups,” Kounalakis added. “And I am indebted to him for assisting me in making this happen.”