What Gender Gap? Washington State Has a History of Women Who Lead

By:  Isolde Raferty
Source: The New York Times

SEATTLE — It was 2009, floods had inundated western Washington and the state’s politicians were flown up to survey the damage. When asked who would scoot down to the open end of the C-17 cargo plane, where they would have to be tethered down for safety, Gov. Christine Gregoire and Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray volunteered.

As Ms. Cantwell tells it, the men declined.       

“Everybody thinks that the macho men would do that,” Ms. Cantwell said. “But it was the three of us willing to go back there.”       

For Ms. Cantwell, who has a photograph of that moment hanging in her lobby, the story speaks to the last eight years, the only time in the country’s history when a state’s governor and two senators have all been women. That time ends in January, as Ms. Gregoire will not seek a third term, and both the Republican and the Democrat vying to succeed her are men.       

Nationwide, women’s groups point out the glaring gender disparity in public life, noting that there are only 6 female governors and 17 female senators. Across the country, women make up 23.6 percent of state legislatures, according to Off the Sidelines, a project started last year by Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York. But in Washington State, women’s serving in public office has been as consistent as the rain.       

“Every once in a while a note or a letter will mention it,” Ms. Gregoire said. “But mostly, it’s taken for granted.”       

Courtney Gregoire, her daughter, would relay differences between Washington State and Washington, D.C., where she worked as the director of the National Export Initiative at the Commerce Department. She found herself biting her tongue when men mentioned her age (she is 32), and she started wearing pantsuits to appear older. Once, after being the lone woman in a meeting of 25, she called her mother.       

The governor replied, “Welcome to how it was for us.”       

For Ms. Cantwell and Ms. Murray, it has been a somewhat strange dynamic. They are not in the minority among politicians in their home state, but they are at the national level, and as such, have been called on to speak up for women. Recently, the two grabbed the spotlight during the debate over contraception.       

Speaking to the Senate this month, Ms. Murray recalled when the government nearly shut down over whether to give money to Planned Parenthood, a women’s health organization opposed by conservatives because some of its clinics provide abortions.       

“I was the only woman in the room,” Ms. Murray said. “And I stood up with those men and I said, ‘No, we will not give away the funding for this over this budget.’ And the women of the Senate the next morning stood tall, we gathered all of our colleagues together, and we fought back. We won that battle.”       

When Ms. Cantwell, Ms. Murray and Ms. Gregoire reflect on how their state became comfortable with female politicians, they hesitate to mention the pioneer women who traveled to the Northwest by wagon (“That would leave out the strong women of Maine,” Ms. Murray said) and note that women lead many Northwest Indian tribes.       

They emphasize that they had role models and that they are not the first women to hold high-level office in the state. That distinction goes to Dixy Lee Ray, whose 1976 gubernatorial campaign slogan was “Little lady takes on big boys,” and Bertha K. Landes who, elected as mayor of Seattle in 1926, became the first female mayor of a major American city. (Her slogan was “Municipal housekeeping.”)       

David Olson, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Washington, went farther back in history: women were allowed to vote during the territorial days, he said, before Washington became a state in 1889. The territorial government ended women’s suffrage, worried that it would cost it statehood. Dr. Olson also argued that because the West was settled later, male-dominated politics have been less embedded in the culture.       

“You can’t teach Washington State government and politics without paying significant attention to women, because we are very exceptional in that regard,” said Dr. Olson, who taught state government for 20 years. “It makes a difference in how issues arise and how they are tended to.”       

A report released last week by the Center for Public Integrity, which ranked Washington State third in terms of accountability, agreed. The authors credited, in part, Washington’s “breed of tough, activist women” for the relative transparency of its government.       

Representative Norm Dicks, a Washington Democrat retiring after 36 years in the House of Representatives, speaks fondly of the women he has worked with — although he said Ms. Ray was a pistol and hard to work with. But sometimes, Mr. Dicks said, he wished the female politicians were not always so pro-woman.       

“I think women tend to advocate for women, and I think to myself, ‘They ought to mention men, too,’ ” he said. “When I’m running, I’m not just talking about men, I’m talking about men, women and children. I think women in politics have to be a little careful not to act as if they’re just representing women.”       

Ms. Cantwell, Ms. Gregoire and Ms. Murray have campaigned together, he said, and Ms. Murray in particular has focused on recruiting women to run for public office.       

“All of that is great but I feel like, ‘Can’t they find a good man to run sometimes?’ ” Mr. Dicks said.       

That unflagging support for women’s issues comes from a feeling that women still need more of a voice, Ms. Murray said.       

She and Ms. Gregoire met on the campaign trail in 1992, the so-called Year of the Woman in the Senate. Ms. Murray was running as the “mom in tennis shoes” and also as the first female senator from Washington. Ms. Gregoire was running for state attorney general and dealing with critics who questioned if she was tough enough for the job.       

“When I first ran for attorney general — how should I put it? — the rap on me was that I wasn’t tough enough,” Ms. Gregoire said. “For governor it’s that I’m too tough. In each of these instances, it’s not related to me and who I am, it’s all related to my gender.”       

But these days, Ms. Gregoire said, even men in their 80s and 90s, Republicans and Democrats, are more interested in speaking with her about issues than about her gender.       

“We’ve pretty much taken care of all the firsts in our state,” she said, rattling off a list of elected offices now held by women — the State Senate majority leader, the Supreme Court chief justice, the King County sheriff. “So if anyone tries to vie with us for the top three, they have a ways to go with the rest, too.”