SACRAMENTO, Calif. – When California Gov. Gavin Newsom was searching for a new attorney general earlier this year, state Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan looked up the job requirements and made a surprising discovery: In many instances, the law assumed the attorney general is a man.
Sprinkled throughout the state code were references to “he” and “him” and “his” when referring to the attorney general and other statewide elected officials, even though Vice President Kamala Harris had been the state's first female attorney general and Eleni Kounalakis is the first woman elected as lieutenant governor.
That will likely change after the state Legislature passed Bauer-Kahan's bill Thursday to update laws governing statewide elected officials with gender-neutral terms. The bill now heads to Newsom, a Democrat, for his review.
“We have women serving in our highest offices, and the (sections) of the code referring to them only in the male pronoun was pretty shocking to me,” said Bauer-Kahan, a Democrat. “It doesn't represent where California is and where California is going.”
The bill is part of a long process of updating state laws and documents with gender neutral terms. Across the U.S., many states have required all new legislation to be written this way.
Minnesota did a complete statutory revision in 1986 to remove gender specific language, according to Mick Bullock, public affairs director for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In recent years, California has passed laws allowing a third gender option on state driver's licenses, identification cards and birth certificates. Also Thursday, the Legislature approved a bill to allow people's gender to be recorded as nonbinary on death certificates, a major source of data for public health research.
A California law passed two years ago requires school districts to reissue high school diplomas to update peoples' names and genders if they are different since graduation. This year, lawmakers are considering a bill by Democratic Assemblyman David Chiu that would do the same thing for college diplomas.
But updating California's laws will take more time. Usually, whenever the Legislature passes a bill to change a law, it includes updated gender-neutral terms. But the state has tens of thousands of laws, so many that bound books — each with about 500 pages — fill an entire wall at the California State Library.
Bauer-Kahan's bill is an attempt to speed up that process. In 2019, the Legislature updated family law to include gender-neutral terms.
This year, Democratic state Sen. John Laird has a bill that would update gender references in laws governing various state agencies — including the California Highway Patrol, the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Department of Insurance.
“It's important to do this work,” Bauer-Kahan said.
The legislation updating laws governing statewide elected officials is AB 378.
The legislation allowing nonbinary to be listed on death certificates is AB 439.
This story has been corrected to say the books containing state laws at the California State Library are 500 pages each, not 1,000 pages.