THE HISTORY OF CALIFORNIA WOMEN'S LIST
California Women’s List (CWL) emerged from the minds and hearts of many great women, over several generations who shared the same goal: electing women leaders into office in California. CWL, as it stands today, was founded in 2015 by Erica Kwiatkowski Nielsen, but our story is rooted in decades of political activism that begins with California List and its founder, Bettina Duval.
Bettina began her political career at UC Berkeley and by the early 2000s she was immersed in the world of fundraising for women candidates. By helping to organize early fundraisers for EMILY’s List in California, she started to see the need for a grassroots fundraising network that would focus specifically on women running for the California State Legislature. These were the seeds that would grow a new movement of achieving gender equity among our elected officials in California.
In March 2003, Bettina pitched a new political action committee to a close circle of political active friends. California List would be an organization focused entirely on electing women to the California State Legislature, something no other organization was doing at the time. Together, that small group became the California List Founding Circle and assisted 97 campaigns and helped elect 46 women, six of whom went on to serve in Congress. One, Kamala Harris, went on to become the first woman, first Black person, and first Asian person in U.S. history to be elected Vice President.
California List proved that through strategic outreach, it is possibile to help candidates overcome the biggest hurdle of their campaigns: raising the early money necessary to win. In 2015, Bettina knew it was time to support a new generation of leaders and selected her mentee, Erica Kwiatkowski Nielsen, to lead California List into its next chapter.
Enter California Women’s List. Erica, a recent graduate working as a political professional in San Francisco, saw firsthand the need to engage more young people in working towards gender equity in electoral politics and committed to doing the work. Bettina and Erica began by organizing several dinners for women throughout California who were interested in how they might put their expertise and brain power toward electing more women.
From those dinners, and many coffee dates, Erica built CWL’s first Board of Directors to create the new brand of CWL which would build on the success of California List. Though the name changed, their mission remained clear -- to fundraise for, support, and elect progressive women to office and bring gender parity to the California State Legislature.
They got to work immediately, launching during the now infamous 2016 election cycle, just ahead of a sea change in Democratic activism. CWL continued to grow, hosting fundraising events throughout the state in the 2016 and 2018 cycles, endorsing candidates, partnering with like-minded groups and seeing successes at the statewide level, including the election of California’s first woman Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis in 2018.
CWL has grown and evolved over the years, and we remain grateful for those first Founding Circle members who laid the foundation for change as we continue to create access for women in politics.
Since our founding in 2015, we have contributed over $95,000 to 50 women running for office with 25 wins. We are proud to say that though we are a small volunteer team we are able to provide substantial financial contributions to our endorsed candidates. We are successful because CWL at its core, is about women unapologetically taking up space; it’s about embracing our collective power in order to break barriers and get women candidates access to the capital they need in order to win campaigns.
Today, we are led by thirteen volunteer board members across the state from Sacramento down to Long Beach; each with a passion for equity and disrupting existing systems of oppression. In 2021, we expanded our vision to include the Leading Locally program -- an effort to elect women candidates at the local level because leadership starts right where you are, and because women belong in all places where decisions are made. We strive to see women representing their communities at all levels of public office across our state. California Women’s List is as determined as ever in our mission to endorse, engage, energize, and #ElectMoreWomen.