The year 1992 was dubbed the Year of the Woman in American politics and no state exemplified the phenomenon more than Washington.
After that election, Washington’s Legislature became No. 1 among the states in the percentage of female lawmakers. Four women won statewide elected offices, including three newcomers.
And a previously obscure state senator from Shoreline who called herself the “Mom in Tennis Shoes” became the state’s first female U.S. senator and helped Congress go from 32 women to 54.
Washington later increased its hold on being the nation’s most receptive state to female candidates. The state Supreme Court had five women among the nine justices. And in 2005, Washington became the first state to have women filling both U.S. Senate seats and the governorship.
“You were considered a mecca for women,” Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, said of the state.
Which is why the closing line in Kathleen Drew’s speech at the state Democratic Party convention Saturday was so jarring. Drew, running for secretary of state, told delegates she is the only Democratic woman running for a statewide elected office.
The same convention nominated U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell for a third term. But of the state executive offices ranging from governor to insurance commissioner, Drew is the only Democrat.
It is no better on the Republican side where Kim Wyman, the Thurston County auditor seeking the same position as Drew, is the only woman preferring that party among candidates for state executive office.
Even the presence of two other open offices – auditor and attorney general – wasn’t enough to attract more female candidates. The lack of them for attorney general is especially troubling. It is the one state job that has proven to be a stepping stone to U.S. senator or governor, so much so that the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) has been nicknamed the “National Association of Aspiring Governors.”
And there is a possibility that a recent trend of declining numbers of women in the Legislature will continue. At its peak, 60 of the 147 members of the House and Senate were women – just under 41 percent.
This past session, 47 women were in the Legislature, 32 percent of the total. Washington is now behind five other states in the presence of women among its lawmakers, according to numbers complied by Walsh’s institute. It could fall again after this election. At least three state Senate seats held by women who are retiring will likely go to men.
All these numbers raise two questions: Why is the number falling? And what does it matter?
Taking the second question first, it matters because representative bodies like the Legislature work better when they are representative of the body politic.
“Our research shows that women bring a different set of perspectives and experiences,” Walsh said. “They will give higher priority to issues of women, families and children.”
The why is anyone’s guess but Walsh notes that the number of women running is declining both in Washington and nationally.
“It’s not that the women aren’t winning, it’s that they’re not running,” Walsh said. In that year of the woman in 1992, 85 female legislative candidates were on the November ballot and 53 won. In 2010, 57 female candidates made the general election ballot and 36 won.
Cathy Allen, a Democratic political consultant in Seattle is working with a national effort called Project 2012 with the goal of increasing the number of female candidates. Allen said of the 46 women she tried to recruit this year, only six said yes.
A common reaction after she asked them to run was, “I thought you liked me.”
“They’d rather get a job, they’d rather raise their kids, they’d rather have balance in their lives,” Allen said of those who opted against running.
“Women are deciding they don’t want this crap,” Allen said. And that’s different for men? Apparently so. For every two men she recruited, two said yes.
“Women, more than men, realize how tough the job is and the sacrifice to their soul that is required.”firstname.lastname@example.org 253-597-8657 blog.thenewstribune.com/politics Twitter: @CallaghanPeter