The number of women in the 120-member Legislature has fallen from a peak of 37 in 2006 to 32 this year, and groups that promote women running for public office are concerned the trend will continue this election year. They also worry about how the drop-off will affect policy decisions in future years.
"We have been losing a woman every election cycle," said Bettina Duval, president of CALIFORNIALIST, which has raised more than $1 million to support female candidates since she founded the group 12 years ago.
There is a general perception that California is doing well because women who are in office hold such powerful positions, she said. Both the state's U.S. senators are women, it is home to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, is poised to become the next speaker of the state Assembly, and California's attorney general and secretary of state are women.
Yet Duval fears women could lose three to five legislative seats this year, accelerating what has been a gradual decline. Moreover, newly expanded term limits (to 12 years in each chamber) mean incumbents could lock out female challengers for more than a decade.
California ranked sixth in the nation in the percentage of women serving in the Legislature in 2004, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. It has slipped steadily as women left their seats in California, and other states added female lawmakers.
California now ranks 19th among states. Vermont and Colorado rank highest, with women accounting for 41 percent of state lawmakers.
Nearly 27 percent of California's Senate and Assembly seats are held by women, slightly higher than the nationwide average of 24 percent. But it's far below the 50.2 percent of the state's population who are women.
"I always say the Legislature should be a microcosm of California," said Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare, who is one of eight women leaving the Legislature this year because of term limits or retirement.
A ninth will leave in midterm if she is elected to Congress.
Conway serves on two of the many organizations that try to recruit, train and fund female candidates: Right Women Right Now, a national initiative of the Republican State Leadership Committee; and California Women Lead, a nonpartisan effort to boost the number of women in elected and appointed office at the state and local levels.
"It is really about reaching out to women and helping them understand what's out there," Conway said.
Women bring a valuable perspective to lawmaking, said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, vice chairwoman of the Legislative Women's Caucus. She said women have promoted legislation related to education, paid family leave, child care, employment discrimination, domestic violence and sexual harassment, among many topics.
Legislative leaders of both political parties said they actively recruit female candidates.
Yet the successes that women have had elsewhere in society have made it more difficult to entice them to run for political office, advocates and lawmakers said. That applies not only at the state level but also to local offices such as school board or city council.
"It seems that we don't have enough qualified folks in the pipeline who want to come to Sacramento, and we need to work harder at that," said Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach.
She is chairwoman of the Legislative Women's Caucus and is one of those termed out of office after this year.
Women are increasingly busy with their own careers and might be reluctant to leave their jobs and families to travel to the capital for much of the year, advocates and lawmakers said.
They also might be more reluctant to ask donors to contribute to their campaigns or to engage in the blunt-edged, highly partisan discourse that increasingly surfaces in political campaigns.
"Women are not stepping forward in the numbers that correspond to our place in the population," said Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis. "Until we break that 50 percent ceiling, we won't be as effective as we'd like."
Most of the old prejudices and stereotypes against women seem to have disappeared, advocates and lawmakers said, yet they said there are differences that can make recruiting women more difficult.
"There's sort of a 'good old boys club,' and men tend to mentor each other. Men tend to get into politics when they want to and because they want to," Jackson said. "Women tend to feel that they have to be ready and have to ask permission, or be encouraged to do so."
That encouragement can start at a younger age, she and others said, and include groups such as military veterans, retirees, women whose children have grown up and those who have been successful in a career and want a new challenge.
Currently, 20 of the 80 Assembly members are women. That includes seven of 25 Republicans and 13 of the 55 Democrats.
Twelve of the 39 sitting lawmakers in the Senate are women. With one seat vacant, that includes 10 of the 28 Democrats and two of the 11 Republicans.
Democratic women are all but certain to lose seats in this year's elections, yet the loss could be made up if Republican women gain ground, said California Target Book publisher Allan Hoffenblum.
In the Senate, two Democratic women are likely to be replaced by male candidates, but Republican women have opportunities to replace men in three districts.
The Assembly is likely to have two Republican and four Democratic women replaced by men, said Hoffenblum, whose publication analyzes legislative and congressional campaigns. But women have a chance to replace men in five other districts.
Advocates and party leaders are scrambling to recruit more candidates as the deadline for running in this year's elections approaches. Declarations of candidacy and nomination papers must be filed between Feb. 10 and March 7.
"Our plate isn't full yet," said Conway, the Assembly GOP leader. "We're still talking to people who are considering running."