Women in Politics: State and the Union

Washington has strong female representation in Congress, but power in U.S. still rests primarily with men – –

By Lauren Dake – – – – –

It was 1993 and newly elected U.S. Sen. Patty Murray was speaking on the Senate floor about family medical leave, a workplace safeguard that didn’t exist at the time.

“I told a story about a friend of mine whose son had leukemia,” Murray recalled. “She was literally told by her boss if she took time off she would lose her job.”

After the debate, as Murray was walking off the chamber’s floor, she was stopped by a longtime male senator. “We don’t tell personal stories here in the Senate,” he said.

Murray, a Democrat from Washington, fired back:

“I came here to make politics work for everyone and policies to work for everyone. And if people understand the impact, that’s how we’ll change laws.”

It’s a story Murray, now in the Senate leadership, likes to tell, illustrating the growing influence women have had on the nation’s political scene. The Senate went from having two female senators to six the year the Family and Medical Leave Act was approved, with the women helping ensure its passage. And these days, it’s difficult to hear a political speech that doesn’t include a personal story.

Yet despite their influence, women are still underrepresented in politics. Women make up half of the population, but represent only 20 percent of the U.S. Senate and 19 percent of the U.S. House. On average, state legislatures are comprised of 24 percent women.

“We are a narrow minority. Most states have never elected a woman to higher office,” Murray said.

Kelly Dittmar, a Rutgers University professor and scholar with the Center for American Women and Politics, called it a problematic trend.

“We’re seeing women advance in society, culturally … (But) there are still hurdles gaining power in the political sphere,” Dittmar said.

Washington state stands out, however. Women from both parties have made history and continue to do so. Not long ago, the state’s three top political spots were all filled by women: Christine Gregoire was governor and both of the state’s U.S. senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, are women. Only 11 states have elected both a female governor and U.S. senator.

“The dynamic in Washington (state) is one of the most interesting in the entire country,” said Jim Moore, director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore. “You have two powerful senators … You have (Cathy McMorris) Rodgers, who is one of the top Republicans in the House, which is fantastic. You just don’t see it in other states. You throw in JHB (Jaime Herrera Beutler), and you have players.”

But they all have their stories.

Murray, the state’s first female U.S. senator, turned the phrase “mom in tennis shoes” from an insult into her campaign slogan. It was originally tossed at her dismissively, as in you can’t accomplish much being a “mom in tennis shoes.”

Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, jokingly referred to Congress as a “man cave.”

There was the time she was pregnant with her daughter, Abigail, and a high-level negotiation was happening in a cigar smoke-filled room, where she happened to be the only woman.

“I stood in the corner, chimed in for a minute and left,” she said. “The men apologized later; they weren’t thinking in those terms. It wasn’t malicious.”

And yes, sometimes the gender stereotypes that are so familiar they feel like a cliche still ring true.

A female gets labeled as strident or pushy.

“Someone like Sen. Barbara Boxer stands up and fights for her people and her state and people say she’s pushing really hard,” Cantwell said. “Well, I look at it like she’s fighting for clean air, or clean water.”

“Has anyone said Ted Cruz is too pushy? Or Rand Paul? I don’t think they have. They might have said other things, but not too pushy. You have to create a mass of so many people, of equal representation and then the stereotype disappears after a while,” Cantwell said. “It’s probably never totally gone, but it dissipates.”

McMorris Rodgers’ take echoed others.

“I’ve always taken the approach I’m going to work hard and I’m going to earn the respect,” she said. “And, yes, maybe there’s time when there are miscommunications and misconceptions; I respond by saying I’m going to work hard and earn someone’s respect.”

Collectively, the women who represent Washington state have a long list of accomplishments: Murray negotiated a budget bill with now-Speaker Paul Ryan that staved off a government shutdown. She’s a ranking member on a number of key committees, including the Appropriations Committee and most recently spearheaded an overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act.

McMorris Rodgers, the highest-ranking Republican woman in the House, gave the GOP response to President Barack Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address. All of them have crafted legislation with lofty goals, no matter the side of the aisle. Cantwell has pushed for more safeguards when it comes to rail safety, and Herrera Beutler is working to streamline the process for parents who have medically complex children.

As the nation approaches the 100-year anniversary of women being given the right to vote, it’s easy to point to progress.

“But when you look at voters, over 50 percent are women and yet in Congress, 20 percent of the officials are women … There’s more work to be done,” McMorris Rodgers said.

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