Five-term state legislator and former Pierce County Councilwoman Phyllis Erickson, a trailblazer for women in public service, died last month. She was 90.
Erickson was born in 1923 in Amarillo, Texas, and raised in Colorado and Utah. She married her husband, Jack, in 1945, and they moved to Tacoma for Jack’s medical internship.
She first held public office in 1962 when she was the first woman elected to the Franklin Pierce School Board. A decade later, voters in Legislative District 2 elected her to her first of five terms in the state House.
Erickson, a Democrat, was far from the only woman in the Legislature at that time, but there were still committees that women did not serve on. Some of her thoughts on running and serving in office were collected during a 1981 interview for the Women in Washington Legislative Oral History Project.
Erickson said that when she was in office, women were not picked for leadership positions, and they endured sexist remarks. Smart, capable women were a threat, she said.
“Women were still in the minds of far too many people – and certainly legislators were no different – just still being held as homemakers, sex objects, whatever,” she told the interviewer.
She said the stereotype of lobbyists “with a girlie under one arm and a six pack under the other” wasn’t necessarily accurate. But a lot of legislative business was done after-hours in bars and smoke-filled rooms where women of the time did not feel comfortable if they wanted to protect their reputations.
“If the gals and the guys did the same things, the guys get by with it a lot more than the women do,” she said. “…I think there was somewhat of a double standard.”
Erickson told the interviewer that the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee once told her, “No way is a woman going to sit on my committee, and if we have field trips and go out, I don’t want a woman going along.”
Erickson also championed open government even before she became a legislator, when she was a member of the Pierce County League of Women Voters. The League would go to Olympia to pass out information about various committee meetings happening that day.
She said the Legislature at that time was “a great big dark dilemma for anybody coming to visit” because public notice for committee meetings was not required.
She resigned her House seat in 1981 to run for County Council. Pierce County voters had just approved a home-rule charter, which changed the form of government from a three-member elected body to a seven-member council.
Erickson represented east Pierce County for six years. Joe Stortini, who served with her on the County Council, said Erickson was a hard worker, a people person and a “good team player.”
“She didn’t ever hide anything,” Stortini said. “If she had something to say, she would let you know exactly how she feels.”
During that time, East Pierce County saw a lot of growth. Erickson was concerned about economic development and land-use planning, Stortini said.
She resigned her position in 1986 to join her husband in retirement.
In addition to her years as a state and local representative, Erickson also served on many local boards.
She is survived by four children, a daughter, Kendra Kuehn of Green Valley, Ariz.; and three sons, Kent Erickson of Sacramento, Calif.; Kirk Erickson of Seattle; and Kevin Erickson of Bonney Lake; two daughters-in-law; four granddaughters; and one great-granddaughter. She was preceded in death by her husband.
Family members could not be reached.
Erickson frequently spoke with women’s groups about running for office. Though women had to work a little harder than men, she said in 1981, “I think that women can do almost anything in Olympia that a man can do if they have the talent and the capabilities to do it.”
MEMORIAL SERVICE IN MAY
A memorial service for Phyllis Erickson will be held May 1 at the Mountain View Funeral Home in Lakewood. Memorial contributions in her name can be made to KPLU or the Tacoma Musical Playhouse.
Kate Martin: 253-597-8542