While Washington State is often highlighted for its female governor and two female senators, the focus has shifted to increase women representation in the statehouse.
SEATTLE — The 1992 election was dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” when Anita Hill’s treatment while testifying in the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, galvanized a movement. The all-male committee highlighted the dominance of men in the Senate, and women responded — that year, 24 new women were elected into the House of Representatives and five to the Senate, including Washington’s Patty Murray.
That uptick in female elected officials also made its way into the statehouse. In Washington, after the 1992 election, women represented 40% of the state legislature — more than any other state.
With that history in mind, and an outgoing female governor and two female senators, you’d think Washington State would be the poster child for states that represent women. But if you peek behind the curtain, you see that female representation in the state legislature has been slowly eroding since its apex in the early 1990s. Today, it stands at 32%.
That number has the opportunity to decline even further with 10 open legislative seats in this year’s election that are currently held by women – including Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown. Several of those open seats include long-term incumbents. Yet increased voter turnout this year could also mean that the departure of current female legislators opens the door for new faces to step in.
“We are in this perfect storm,” said Linda Mitchell, president of the National Women’s Political Caucus of Washington. “With the redistricting and the presidential and gubernatorial races, those factors provide huge voter turnout. More voters traditionally mean more votes for women.”
Mitchell points out that redistricting — the redrawing of electoral boundaries after the census — usually breaks open seats that have been held by incumbents, which provides new opportunities for female candidates.
This is also a year that women’s issues have received the national spotlight. From the controversy surrounding the Susan G. Komen for the Cure pulling funding from Planned Parenthood to Rush Limbaugh calling a law student a “slut” after she testified to congressional Democrats about insurance coverage for contraception, many female voters are expected to turn out at the polls.
I, for one, was disappointed when I saw the photo of the all-male panel of experts called by a House committee to discuss insurance coverage of birth control in President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. How could a woman’s voice not be included in that conversation? With more focus on women’s issues, it seems like this year has the potential to be another “year of the woman,” similar to 1992. But the progress is at times hard to see — and that frustrates political consultant and founding partner and principal of Moxie Media, Lisa MacLean.
“Why does it take something terrible to happen, like with Anita Hill or the attacks on Planned Parenthood and the contraception debate, for it to be a year of the woman? Why isn’t every year a year of the woman?” MacLean asked.
The answer may lie in recruitment. Everyone that I talked to for this piece agreed that there needs to be more done to recruit women to run for office.
“The number one reason people do not run for office is because no one has asked them,” said Erin McCallum, president of Enterprise Washington, an organization who recruits and trains “business-minded lawmakers.”
While both McCallum’s and Mitchell’s groups focus on the full spectrum of political offices, they are also participating in a national movement outo Rutgers University in New Jersey called The 2012 Project: “a non-partisan campaign of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) to increase the number of women in Congress and state legislatures by taking advantage of the once-in-a decade opportunities of 2012.”
However, there are hurdles to scale. Notably, on Monday, the Missouri House voted 93-59 to bar any public college or university from offering educational programs that encourage women to run for public office. This kind of legislation has the potential to contribute to a decline in females seeking political office.
Diane McDaniel noticed the decline in Washington female legislators and decided there needs to be an organization to support and recruit progressive woman candidates. McDaniel was the political director of the Washington State Labor Council for 15 years and continues to be active in politics. She teamed up with progressive lobbyist Lonnie Johns Brown and Teresa Purcell to form the Progressive Women’s Network of Washington, which launched in January.
“We are setting up a network around the state to recruit women candidates and identify other women to help mentor, train and prepare those who want to run. This is a long term project. Washington is a good state for women. We want to make sure we focus on it and not come back every 10 or 20 years when the need is great,” McDaniel said.
Until our statehouse is filled with at least 50% women lawmakers, there will always be room for progress.