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Screw Hope. Trust Tenacity.

How Hannah-Beth Jackson Beat the Drum for Women’s Rights

Photo of Hannah-Beth Jackson by Paul Wellman

It was 11:56 p.m. on her final day of her final term in office — and things didn’t look good. “I had ’til midnight to get this bill passed, and I’d been working on it for years,” State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson says of her Paid Family Leave Act, aimed at protecting the jobs of folks who take leave to care for family. It had passed the Senate but needed 41 votes to clear the Assembly.  

Fresh from a C-section, Rep. Buffy Wicks (D-Berkeley) showed up with her newborn to cast the 40th vote in favor. “We were running out of time,” Jackson recalls, “and I thought, We’re not gonna get there.”

And then (get this!) moderate Democrat Joaquin Arambula, who reps conservative Fresno and had publicly spoken out against the bill, voted in favor — tipping the ayes to 41.

A casual observer might call it luck. But anyone who’s followed Sen. Jackson’s career — her stint in the State Assembly from 1998 to 2004, and her two terms in the Senate, which officially ended Nov. 30 — knows it’s the result of the senator’s political mantra: 

“Never ever, ever, ever, ever give up.”

Janice Rocco, who ran Jackson’s first campaign, says Hannah-Beth will often have five or six conversations with individual colleagues to get them to support her legislation. “She’s been able to accomplish an amazing amount,” Rocco said at a recent Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee event honoring Jackson, “in large part due to her tenacity and her willingness to just persevere.”

I like Jackson’s chutzpah. She’s fearless, passionate, and swears. A lot, actually. Diminutive, outspoken, and electric with energy even after a sauvignon blanc, she’s the kind of woman who’s often described as a “firecracker.” 

But firecrackers just make a lot of noise. Jackson actually makes shit happen — particularly around gender equality. When the Trump administration undermined Title IX, she wrote and passed a law ensuring fair process for students who’ve been sexually assaulted. Eight states are using her Women on Corporate Boards bill as a model for their own laws demanding that public companies add women to their boards. And a whopping 43 states are drafting versions of her California Fair Pay Act, which forces companies to prove that gender isn’t the reason for pay discrepancies. 

“We’ve had discrimination in pay since Adam and Eve. Women’s work has always been held to a lesser standard,” Jackson tells me, eyes flashing, voice high and airy like a coach’s whistle. An attorney by trade, she’s been working on this problem since the ’70s, when Governor Jerry Brown appointed her to the state Commission on the Status of Women. “I didn’t believe women should be paid less, because they didn’t have a penis.”

Four decades is a long time to chip away at an issue … but persistence pays off.

“Cultural shifts don’t happen overnight,” says Jackson, who’s now 70. “Social change is a slow but relentless process. You have to stay focused — and be willing to take some hits.”

She’s taken her share. She lost her first bid for a Senate seat in 2008 and then battled breast cancer and came back to win the election in 2012. And, of course, not every day in Sacramento is a walk on the beach. 

“You write bills and have to keep cutting slices off them,” she says, “… like a loaf of bread.” Perhaps most disappointing of all: Her bill outlawing the Pink Tax — arbitrary price inflation for products aimed at women — got scrapped when COVID-19 hit.

But (stop me if you’ve heard this one) she’s not ready to give up.

“We’re not done yet,” Jackson tells me. “It will happen. I’m going to urge my colleagues to take up the banner.”

Trump’s defeat has left her hopeful about the future — but she’d never bet on hope over dogged determination.

“You don’t stop beating the drum,” she says. “You keep beating until people are tired of hearing it. Until you have what you need.”

Thanks for your service, Sen. Jackson. And for never giving up on us.

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