Taking it to the Beast

An interview with California state senator Hannah-Beth Jackson.

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When Hannah-Beth Jackson was seven years old in 1957, she was dismissed from Little League baseball tryouts because she was a girl. In response to the snub, Jackson pedaled her bike home and worked with her parents to create a petition. Clipboard in hand, she walked around her Boston neighborhood asking neighbors to sign her proclamation stating girls should be allowed to play baseball. Naysayers were plentiful — one person even patted her on the head and told her to go home and play with dolls — but at the end of the day, Jackson had a robust list of signatures.

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She never heard back from the Little League Commission, which might explain why she went on to become a prosecutor, then an attorney, a member of the California State Assembly, and now a California state senator; she has crafted a career out of going to bat and playing ball.

Representing California's 19th District, which includes Santa Barbara County and western Ventura County, Jackson has written one of the strongest equal-pay laws in the nation, has been an outspoken proponent of fair family leave, and staunchly supported Planned Parenthood as the chair of the California Legislative Women's Caucus. State senator Jackson talked to Lenny about her career, some of her key legislation, and how we should all be making our voices heard.

Amy Lyons: It sounds like speaking truth to power has gotten you to where you are. Could you talk about the balance between speaking up and choosing battles, especially in the age of Trump?

Hannah-Beth Jackson: There has to be a balance, or else you lose your credibility. My mother used to say to me, "You can catch more bees with honey," but I was never one to think of the honey approach. I would say, as I look back on my life, that probably it would have been easier on me if I had perhaps been a little bit more diplomatic. Find the place where you can go to appeal to people without threatening them. That isn't something that is easy to discern. It takes experience. I'm better at it today than I was at twenty. I am no less determined to really express my feelings and have my opinion known, but after thoughtful reflection.

The question today is: How can we, in this era of Trump, get the results that we want, that we deserve, that are going to protect our democracy, that are going to protect the peace and security of the planet?

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I think we are dealing with a lunatic. In all candor, and as a politician and as a statesperson and as a senator, that's a pretty strong statement, but the truth is I really think that you can't appeal to someone based upon reason or logic or compassion who is as off as this man is. We just have to take it to him. We have to call upon the people around him, who are essentially spineless, who are essentially willing to save their own political necks when they know that this man is dangerous.

I am hopeful that young people, particularly young women, will recognize how important it is to speak up. To do it in whatever way they feel empowered to make that difference. Young women must recognize how crucial their voices are in this process.

My mother used to say to me, "You can catch more bees with honey," but I was never one to think of the honey approach.

AL: Even before Donald Trump, you were fighting for women's rights. You wrote the California Fair Pay Act to bridge the gender pay gap. What led you to that work?

H-BJ: Many years ago, after I finished law school, about 15 to 20 percent of my colleagues were women. Now it's a much higher number. We still had to fight hard to be recognized and taken seriously. My feminism was really getting activated with things like Roe v. Wade. When I started working in the DA's office in Santa Barbara, I was one of two women in the entire office. They referred to the women in the secretarial pool as girls, but they were all old enough to be my mother. I remember thinking: My mother is not a girl, she's a woman.

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This was my first crusade: respect these women. Of course, then I was labeled as one of the feminazis, and I started wearing that moniker quite proudly. I was appointed to serve on the affirmative-action committee because we had no women in any positions of power. Then I was on the county commission for women. That's where the equal-pay issue started for me. Fast-forward about 35 or 40 years, and I finally get a real equal-pay bill on the books.

AL: It has been called one of the strongest equal-pay laws in the nation. What makes the California version stronger than other equal-pay laws?

H-BJ: One, it says equal pay for substantially similar work. California has had an equal-pay bill on the books since 1949, but it used to say equal pay for equal work. The courts define that to mean exactly the same work. Let me give you an example of why that doesn't work: Take a police officer. There have been historical requirements that police officers be able to lift a substantial amount of weight, which reduces the possibilities of some women applying.

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So when you look at the job of a police officer, there are instances where physical work comes into play, where the officer has to wrangle with someone and put them in cuffs, but there are other important parts of the job. In fact, when you send a female police officer out on certain kinds of high-risk calls — like a domestic-violence call in which there is no need to physically engage — women historically have higher success rates because they do a much better job of diffusing a volatile situation without violence. So why would we pay a woman officer less because she can't lift 200 pounds? That is why the language of "substantially similar work" is so important.

A second thing that is important about the California Fair Pay Act is related to the Lilly Ledbetter case, in which she had a contract with her employer — as did her colleagues — that prohibited her from talking about her compensation. Ledbetter had no idea that she was being paid less than her male counterparts. Well, the California bill says an employer cannot retaliate against an employee for either asking what their colleagues are being paid or for the colleagues sharing that information. The third thing is that the burden to show that the difference in pay is not gender-based falls on the employer, not the employee.

AL: As chair of the California Legislative Women's Caucus, you've been a big supporter of Planned Parenthood. Is there anything we can do, legislatively and from the perspective of ordinary people, to resist Paul Ryan's plan to defund Planned Parenthood?

H-BJ: Yes. We have to get people to summon the courage to step up. In the districts where there are Republican Congress members, people need to tell their stories, give testimony about how important Planned Parenthood was and is to them, whether it was for a Pap smear, a breast exam, family planning, or reproductive decisions. We need Planned Parenthood, and we need people to demand that their Congress members vote to support Planned Parenthood, not defund it. Also, people need to support Planned Parenthood with a contribution, with assistance, with volunteering, with anything that can be done to keep this critical health-care program alive. I think those are keys: talking to Congress, and giving whatever you can. We have to take this right to the beast.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Amy Lyons's writing has appeared in LA Weekly, Barrelhouse, 100-Word Story, and more. She's working on a book.

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