The year 2020 is symbolic for women. In the United States, this year celebrates the 100th anniversary of women wining the right to vote. 2020 is also a crucial year for gender equality and empowerment of both women and girls worldwide. The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) emphasizes that in 2020, the global community marks the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, as well as a five-year milestone towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
In America, there is a tradition of linking women’s history with the month of March, starting from a day of recognition, then a week, and finally a month. According to the National Women’s History Alliance, in 1978, California was one of the pioneers to successfully initiate and promote women’s history in a period when it “was virtually an unknown topic in the K-12 curriculum or in general public consciousness.”
And California remains one of the pioneers. In 2019, the first woman was elected to the office of lieutenant governor: Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, an American of Greek descent, currently serves as the 50th Lieutenant Governor of California. On the occasion, of Women’s History Month, Lt. Gov. Kounalakis, a businesswoman and former U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, spoke to The National Herald about her term in the office, women’s contributions in politics and society, as well as about her family and hellenic background.
The National Herald: You are of Greek descent, born and raised in California. What is it like to be growing up between two cultures? What does Hellenism mean to you?
Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis: I am very proud to be a Greek American. Throughout my life, my heritage has deeply influenced my choices and world view. My love and respect for family, strong faith, and belief in the democratic institutions that underpin our society are all values I credit to my Greek heritage and upbringing. The experiences of my family, as Greek immigrants to the United States, are very similar to the stories and experiences of so many other immigrant families who have come to this country. We are all, in so many ways, walking the pathway of the American dream, and the California dream, together.
TNH: What are your priorities and achievements, as a Lieutenant Governor of California?
ETK: There are three main areas of focus for the office of Lieutenant Governor: higher education (holding a seat on the UC Regents and Board of the CSU Trustees), the environment (with seats on the State Lands Commission and Ocean Protection Council), and economic development. In addition to my work in these areas, Governor Newsom signed an executive order designating me his Representative for International Affairs and Trade Development. In this role I am able to apply my international experience as a former United States Ambassador by representing California on the international stage. I also serve as the chair of an interagency trade committee composed of more than a dozen of the Governor’s advisors, agency secretaries, and department directors.
When it comes to education, I have made it a priority to meet with students at every one of our 33 CSU and UC campuses, and elevate their voices. I’ve spoken out publicly against tuition and fee increases at CSU Trustees and UC Regents meetings, fought for women’s health and the legal right to choose, and other issues affecting student life.
As a leader of environmental protection for our state, I’m working hard to help prepare for and combat climate change. I have been working hard to stop the Trump administration’s plans to expand offshore oil drilling, and have advocated for greater public access so all Californians have the chance to enjoy our beautiful coastline.
My international portfolio has been very busy, and very rewarding. So far, I’ve welcomed five heads of state to California, and have hosted more than 20 ministerial or gubernatorial level counterparts. I’ve had the opportunity to represent California at nearly 30 international conferences, events, and national day receptions. My team and I have led official delegations to Mexico City and India, visited Tijuana and the border with Mexico several times, and traveled to China and Armenia to promote California’s economic and environmental policies while working to increase opportunities for trade and mutual cooperation.
TNH: You chair the State Lands Commission which is represented by all women. Do you think that women decision makers are more environmentally conscious than men, and why?
ETK: The State Lands Commission is responsible for the preservation, restoration, responsible economic development, and promotion of public access to more than four million acres of tidelands, riverbeds, and other lands underlying navigable waters. As rotating chair of the Commission, I take its mission to protect the public’s interest in these lands extremely seriously. As stewards, all members of the Commission diligently exercise our oversight role to ensure that those who use these public lands use them responsibly.
Our commission is very focused on the impacts of climate change, and how we can prepare for them. As we plan and prepare for sea level rise, and the other monumental impacts of climate change, the State Lands Commission applies the very best available science to ensure our public lands are managed sustainably and as resiliently as possible.
It is exciting that for the first time in history, our commission is made up entirely of women. I fervently believe in women having equal representation in the halls of power, whether in the public or private sector, and I know that gender parity leads to better outcomes. I often cite research by McElhaney and Mobasseri which found that companies with one or more women on their board (v. zero) performed better on all three of their ESG – environmental, social and corporate governance areas. This includes such goals as energy efficiency, employee access to healthcare, less fraud and corruption, and less misreporting of financial data.
TNH: You are a politician, a businesswoman, a mother, a wife. How do you achieve a balance in your roles? How can women challenge stereotypes and misrepresentation in politics?
ETK: It’s true, I’m known to work hard! But having a healthy work-life balance is important. I try to work hard, and play hard, and I always prioritize spending time with my family whenever I have time off. I also enjoy outdoor activities, especially hiking and biking, and have found exercise to be instrumental in keeping me grounded during the stress of daily life. I am very lucky to have a very supportive partner in my husband Markos Kounalakis and a strong support network of friends and family.
Women can challenge stereotypes by owning the fact that we add our perspective, dedication, ideas, experience and talents – and these are valuable things. Incredible women are stepping forward to run for office at all levels. We need more women in office, especially women of color and those from marginalized communities, so we can ensure that a wide range of perspectives are included in the development of public policy.