How did we lose female lawmakers?

Staff writerJuly 7, 2013 

When Washington lawmakers assembled recently to announce a deal on a state operating budget, something was noticeably absent: women.

Announcing the long-awaited bargain were 11 men — Gov. Jay Inslee, the leaders of the four political caucuses of the Legislature and the top budget negotiators.

What made it even more striking was that just a year ago, the governor and the Senate leader were women, while three years ago the House majority leader and lead budget writers were as well.

State Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle, said that although Washington’s female legislators have known for some time that their numbers were dwindling, photos of this year’s male-dominated budget news conference sparked new conversations at the Capitol about recruiting more women to run for office.

“We all knew it, but just looking at that picture was an embarrassment,” Cody said. “We said, ‘What’s wrong with this picture? We’ve got to change it.’”

The leadership shift happened over time as high-profile women left the Legislature. Longtime Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, retired in 2012, as did Democratic state Sen. Margarita Prentice of Renton, who chaired the Senate Ways and Means Committee from 2005 to 2010.

Additionally, former House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, retired in 2010, while former House Ways and Means chairwoman Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, lost her bid for re-election that year.

David Postman, a spokesman for Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, said that the group of legislators that joined Inslee to announce the budget deal June 27 wasn’t intentionally all-male — it just worked out that way.

“It came together very quickly, and word went out to the caucuses, ‘Is there anyone available to do it?’” Postman said. “And not everyone was in the building at the time.”

Had the Governor’s Office convened a similar news conference to announce a transportation revenue package, “You would have seen some veteran women legislators there,” Postman said. The House Transportation Committee is chaired by a woman, and the Senate Transportation Committee has a co-chairwoman.

It’s not just female leaders that have become scarce in Olympia. Female membership in the Legislature has declined overall, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey.

In 2000, almost 41 percent of Washington state lawmakers were women, while this year women make up 30.6 percent, the lowest percentage since 1990.

At the same time, as other states have elected more women to their legislatures, Washington — which for years led the nation with its high percentage of female legislators — fell to eighth.

The trend is concerning to lawmakers such as state Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Olympia, who has been in the Legislature since 1989. Fraser, who as chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Caucus is the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, said women’s interests weren’t well-represented until a large portion of the Legislature was female.

“The result was laws that discriminated terribly against women — discriminated against them economically, legally and educationally and health care-wise and so forth,” Fraser said. “As you got more women in the Legislature, they made laws affecting women’s lives a priority, and the laws became more equal.”

Washington isn’t unique. Nationwide, fewer women are serving in legislatures, said Kelly Dittmar, assistant research professor at the Center for American Women and Politics.

“We saw an increase in women in the early ’90s, and then it sort of peaked in the state legislatures overall,” Dittmar said. “We’ve seen … a plateau since then.”

One of the reasons is that not enough women are choosing to run for office to replace women who are retiring, Dittmar said.

Fixing that will involve actively recruiting more women to run, as studies show women are more likely to enter the political arena after they are approached by someone else, said Cody, who is chairwoman of the House Health Care and Wellness Committee.

Senate Republicans are the only group in the Legislature that has bucked the trend. Seven female Republicans serve in the Senate in 2013, the same number as in the peak years of 1997 and 1998.

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom said that women play a vital role in the leadership of the Republican-dominated Senate Majority Coalition Caucus, even though they don’t occupy top spots. Of the seven women in the caucus, four chair committees. Additionally, Wenatchee Sen. Linda Evans Parlette as caucus chairwoman and La Center Sen. Ann Rivers as majority whip “have both played critical roles,” said Tom, whose caucus consists of 23 Republicans and two Democrats.

“We have more women in the Majority Coalition Caucus than have ever been in that room,” said Tom, D-Medina.

That’s the opposite of what’s happened on the Democratic side, where 10 women serve as senators, down from a high of 18 in 1999 and 2000.

Parlette, R-Wenatchee, said that she thinks having women involved changes the tone of budget negotiations.

“For me it seems like for the guys, it’s more about winning and its more about the game,” said Parlette, who is the No. 2 Republican in the Senate. “To me, it seems that women just want to get the job done.”

A decline in the number of female legislative leaders could have something to do with the age at which women choose to enter public life, Dittmar said.

Many women who run for office wait until after their children have grown up and left the house, Dittmar said. That can mean that women don’t have the same opportunity to rise to senior positions, she said.

“By the time they get into office, the men who ran at age 30 or age 25 have significant seniority over them,” Dittmar said.

That doesn’t mean that female lawmakers don’t find ways to balance work and family life. Sen. Janéa Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, gave birth to her son Makaio two months before the 2013 session began, but still agreed to chair the Commerce and Labor Committee.

To focus on her new baby, though, she said she stepped down from the budget-writing Senate Ways and Means Committee — a panel that chairman Andy Hill often said relied on pizza and Diet Coke to fuel long nights at the Capitol.

“Speaking for myself, that would have been difficult,” Holmquist Newbry said.

Cathy Allen, a Democratic political consultant in Seattle, said that part of the difficulty in recruiting women to run for office is that they already are balancing careers, volunteer activities and families, and are hesitant to add the duties of public office.

“They already have too many things they’re doing,” Allen said. “Women more than anything else say, ‘where do they find the time, these women who run for office?’”

Allen said even as she and others work to get more women involved in state politics, it will still take five to 10 years to get the number of women in Legislature back to what it once was.

“We’re going to need to say, ‘if you’re not running this year, we’re going to come back and ask you next year,’” Allen said. “And that’s what we’re doing right now.”

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