Women will hold seven slots in Washington’s 12-member congressional delegation when the next Congress is seated, one of the highest gender ratios of any large state.
It’s part of a trend that goes back to 1992, when Patty Murray was elected the state’s first female U.S. senator, campaigning as a “mom in tennis shoes” as she rose from a local school board to Congress in a few years.
Since then, Washington has elected its second female governor and a second female U.S. senator.
Washington’s current legislature is 37 percent female, among the top five in the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
And with Democrat Kim Schrier winning a House seat last week previously held by Republican Dave Reichert, Washington’s congressional delegation will be have female majority for the first time.
Murray has no easy explanation for her state’s recent history. But she laughs recalling that, in 1992, the media declared it the “year of the woman” when she and three other women were elected to the Senate, giving the Capitol six female senators.
“That was nothing like this,” she said in a recent interview, referring to the outcome of the midterm elections. “That was just a little crack in the glass.”
Although some races are still being counted, this year’s midterms are expected to sweep more than 100 women into the U.S. House, far more than the previous record year, in 2015, when 85 women served. President Donald Trump’s election, combined with Republican efforts to roll back reproductive rights and the Affordable Care Act, inspired an unprecedented number of women to seek federal office.
Yet well before Trump’s rise, Washington state voters were chipping away at the old boys’ club, and in both parties. Voters this year re-elected Republicans Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Jaime Herrera Beutler to the state’s 5th and 3rd congressional districts. McMorris Rodgers, first elected to Congress in 2004, has been the highest ranking Republican in the House, though she plans to step down from her leadership post next year.
The Evergreen State’s experience contrasts with that of Vermont, a similarly progressive state that has yet to elect a woman to Congress, and Kentucky and Louisiana, which in 2019 will continue to have all-male congressional delegations.
So what is it about Washington state? Is there something in the water?
It might have something to do with the state’s “pioneer spirit,” said Christine Gregoire, who was elected Washington governor in 2004 and served two terms.
“I think a lot of this stems from the early, early days of settling this state,” said Gregoire, who was also Washington’s first female attorney general. “Women were tough and played a significant role in settling the state and were recognized as partners in doing so.”
Like their counterparts elsewhere, Washington women fought and lost some battles to gain voting rights. Even before Washington joined the union, state lawmakers debated a bill in 1854 to “allow all white women over the age of 18 years to vote.” It lost by a single vote. It wouldn’t be until 1910 that Washington enacted a women’s suffrage law, becoming the fifth state to do so. A decade later, the 19th Amendment was adopted, assuring all U.S. women the right to vote.
One early breakthrough came in 1976, when atomic scientist Dixy Lee Ray was elected Washington’s first female governor. Although Ray had served in the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, she ran for governor as a Democrat, defeating two established male politicians in the primary and general elections.
But the real break came in 1992. Alarmed by the Senate’s treatment of Anita Hill during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, women such as Murray and Gregoire were motivated to run for higher office, Murray for the U.S. Senate and Gregoire for Attorney General. Murray said she never previously imagined serving in Congress, “but I was so angry at how our U.S. Senate was functioning, I thought, I will just have to go there and do it myself.”
Murray’s victory that year in turn inspired numerous other women to run, said Ron Dotzauer, a Democratic Party strategist who managed Maria Cantwell’s successful U.S. Senate campaign in 2000.
“Patty really opened it up in a much broader way for women in Washington state,” said Dotzauer. “She was the catalyst.”
Over the years, a network of women’s groups have helped encourage and nurture female politicians in Washington state and elsewhere. These include Emerge America, Emily’s List and the National Women’s Political Caucus of Washington. There’s also Murray’s annual “Golden Tennis Shoe” luncheon, which raises money for Democratic causes and candidates, including female allies.
One big barrier to women is the notion that they have to be “hyper-qualified” to seek office, said Marilyn Strickland, former mayor of Tacoma.
“It speaks to the experiences that women have had in the workplace, where you have to be twice as good to get half as much,” said Strickland, who is now president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
Gregoire said she regularly advises aspiring female candidates, who tend to ask much different questions than their male counterparts.
“At the end of the day, the single most important question is whether you can serve in public office and still have a family,” said Gregoire, who now heads a group called Challenge Seattle, made up of the region’s largest employers. “That is the single biggest worry of women running for office.”
Many Washington women have shown they can do both. Murray argues that her home life before politics gave her a greater focus on family issues.
Still, moving from the culture of Washington state to the “other Washington” can be daunting for some politicians.
Speaking at a Politico event in 2014, McMorris Rodgers recalled her election to Congress in 2004. Later she walked into a meeting for the first time with her Republican House colleagues. More than 200 were in attendance.
“I was taken aback,” recalled McMorris Rodgers. “Not too many women. I was like, ‘Wow, Okay.’”
In last week’s elections, both McMorris Rodgers and Herrera Beutler defeated female Democrats to retain their seats, demonstrating that Democrats don’t have a lock on electing Washington women to office. Yet Trump’s policies and rhetoric aren’t making it easy for GOP incumbents such McMorris Rodgers and Herrera Beutler, who both faced tougher-than-expected re-election campaigns.
At the same time, upstarts such as Schrier sailed to victory, campaigning hard on women’s reproductive rights and support for the Affordable Care Act. Schrier defeated veteran GOP politician Dino Rossi, who had previously lost twice to Gregoire for governor and once to Murray for U.S. Senate.
Gregoire says she sees parallels between 1992 and 2018 in the surge of women running for office, as well as strong female voter turnout nationwide. Trump’s boasting of his harassment of women. The Women’s March. His insults against female politicians and reporters. All of those galvanized women to run, she said, and then the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings further angered some voters.
“Women are tired of it,” said Gregoire. “They are tired of the divisiveness, they are tired of the failure to be civil, to solve problems and put families and the country first. But they are tired of the demeaning rhetoric against women...They think it is time for a change and they firmly believe it is time to get off the sidelines and get in the game.”