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 Sánchez Cerén, 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 Sánchez Cerén 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 filmmaker, 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.
“A good percentage of entertainment and tech that we’re putting out into the world is questionable in terms of the impact it’s having on our kids’ minds and hearts and wellbeing,” she said.
In “The Great American Lie,” Siebel Newsom takes on the economic policies of President Ronald Reagan, who she revered while growing up in a conservative household in wealthy Marin County, just north of San Francisco. That background, she says, helps her empathize with a range of people, including conservatives featured in her films.
Her father, the son of steel mill workers, put himself through college on a scholarship and then went into the wealth management business where Siebel Newsom said he reaped benefits from so-called “Reaganomics” that favored less taxes and government regulation. He held traditional views of family, with him as the breadwinner and his wife maintaining the home and caring for five daughters.
When Siebel Newsom was 6, her older sister died in a golf cart accident, which she said fostered a sense of guilt and a need “to help people because I couldn’t help her.”
Siebel Newsom said her political views evolved as she got older.
“I really grew up thinking Reagan was the end-all, be-all and then when I started delving into research around his policies and saw the outcomes, I realized that I didn’t associate with those policies and didn’t think those were the smartest,” she said.
That makes for some uncomfortable conversations with her parents, who she said are still proud of her political work with Newsom.
“We have discussions that I’m not always interested in having, but I’m always listening to (my dad’s) perspective and hoping he’s listening to mine,” she said.
Siebel Newsom’s parents instilled a commitment to service, and she followed in her father’s footsteps by working with the nonprofit Conservation International in Latin America and Africa in between getting her bachelor’s degree and an MBA at Stanford University.
She honed her Spanish while living in Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and Chile. Her Spanish now allows her to communicate with millions of Californians in a way that her husband can’t. State Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, an immigrant from El Salvador, said Siebel Newsom has worked to amplify the voices of marginalized communities.
“She’s not trying to speak on behalf of any group, she’s trying to give voice and a platform to communities that often are not invited or don’t have the opportunity or the luxury of being in the room or at the table,” Carrillo said.
Both Newsoms say they constantly discuss their political priorities.
“They’re informal conversations at dinner, having breakfast, driving the kids to school, getting coffee in the morning,” Gov. Newsom said.
Newsom said he arrived at 11 p.m. at the family’s multi-million dollar home in a Sacramento suburb after a long day in June finalizing his state budget and found about two dozen women there discussing Michelle Obama’s book “Becoming” with his wife.
That talk with her book club led Siebel Newsom to bring a host of other topics to her husband’s attention, keeping him up long past midnight.
As he recalled it, “They just got into these deep conversations, and those conversations carry over to: ‘What are you going to do about it, Gavin?”