California’s first partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom shows ‘no timidity’ on key issues
SACRAMENTO — California Gov. Gavin Newsom was wrapping up a meeting with the president of El Salvador in April when his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, spoke up in fluent Spanish.
What, she asked Salvador Sanchez Ceren, did he have to say about the country’s poor record on women’s rights? Newsom, who doesn’t speak the language, learned what she had asked through a translator and worried his host would be offended. But Sanchez Ceren didn’t seem phased and gave a lengthy answer about progress and work that remains.
Gavin Newsom said in a recent interview he should have expected his wife’s forthrightness.
“There’s no timidity with Jen when it comes to things she cares about and causes she holds dear,” he said.
And the chief causes for Siebel Newsom, a 45-year-old actress turned documentary film maker, are gender equality and society’s treatment of women and families. As California’s “First Partner,” a term she prefers to the traditional “First Lady” because it is gender neutral and could apply to the spouse of a future woman or LGBT governor, Siebel Newsom is marrying the activism she’s done through her filmmaking with the governing agenda of her husband, a Democrat in his first term leading the nation’s most populous state.
Since her husband’s inauguration, Siebel Newsom has launched a campaign pushing California companies to pay workers equally and urged her husband to expand paid family leave. She stood alongside him and women lawmakers in May when he announced a “parents’ agenda” that includes two more weeks of leave per parent, a bigger tax credit for low-income families and tax cuts on tampons on diapers. It easily passed as part of the state budget.
“I don’t have to say things anymore — he’s been listening for a long time,” Siebel Newsom said of her husband of 11 years.
Women lawmakers see new allies in the Newsoms, parents of four children under 10, compared to former Gov. Jerry Brown, who was 81 when he left office.
“She has the governor’s ear and you know she values the same things,” Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez said of Siebel Newsom’s work with the Legislative Women’s Caucus.
Shortly after the Newsoms married, Siebel Newsom, found herself dissatisfied with the roles Hollywood gave her — like the love interest of male characters and a one-episode appearance as a prostitute in the “Mad Men” TV series.
Inspired by the pregnancy that produced her first child, a girl, Siebel Newsom decided to go behind the camera to make her first documentary “Miss Representation,” which examines Hollywood’s fixation on women’s looks. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011, followed by her launch of The Representation Project nonprofit group that writes curricula about gender in media.
Siebel Newsom then widened her scope, focusing on how society treats men and boys with her film “The Mask You Live In” and exploring how gender values influence the U.S. economy in “The Great American Lie,” which premiered this year.
As Newsom’s “First Partner,” she plans to launch an effort this fall probing negative effects of media and technology on children. She said “the jury’s still out” when asked if it will be hard for her as the governor’s wife to take on two mega-industries that drive California’s economy, Silicon Valley and Hollywood.