Joni Balter warns Susan Hutchison and Jan Drago that they shouldn’t expect an automatic leg up simply by virtue of their gender, arguing that “Washington voters are too smart for that.” And while I only partially take issue with her thesis (gender will help them stand out in a primary field of men, but won’t do them much good in the general), it was this paragraph that caught my attention:
Seattle and King County are politically sophisticated places. As the only state with two female U.S. senators and a female governor, Washington is the most progressive state in the country when it comes to electing women. Year after year, the state ranks near the top of the list for highest percentage of women elected to the Legislature.
True, sorta. But the trend doesn’t look so encouraging for women these days, particularly at the legislative level.
Washington did indeed rank first in the percentage of women legislators from 1993 through 2004, reaching a high of 40.8 percent (60 out of 147) in 1999 and 2000, but has been trailing off ever since. In 2009 Washington is down to only 48 women legislators, or 32.7 percent, still good for sixth place nationally, but our lowest percentage since 1991.
I asked National Women’s Political Caucus of Washington President Linda Mitchell about the drop-off, and she says that the biggest hurdle to electing more women is recruiting more women candidates:
“We still have a long way to go toward equal representation of women in our elected bodies and one of the biggest problems is that more women are not running for office. Another example, of the nineteen Seattle City Council candidates this year, only two are women. Well-qualified women often choose not to run because they don’t think they are qualified enough, they lack the money networks, and because they don’t have enough support and encouragement.”
And it doesn’t sound like Mitchell thinks Balter’s characterization of the candidates and their races does much to help the cause:
“I disagree with Balter’s assessment of these two candidates. Hutchison is not “riding on her gender by sitting out public forums”, it’s her huge name familiarity. Drago is not “counting on gender politics for a win”, but on a different leadership style – and polling indicates she’s not off-base. I give both women credit for running and hope we can find ways to encourage more women to do so.”
There is this commonly repeated notion that being a woman confers some sort of electoral advantage in Washington state—a notion that Balter ironically reinforces through her “voters are too smart” refutation—when in fact the numbers clearly say otherwise. Women make up slightly over half the electorate, and consistently turn out in higher numbers than men, yet now comprise less than one third of our state legislature, and one ninth of our US House delegation.
Sure, as Balter points out, the top three elected statewide offices are currently held by women, but this is the exception, not the rule. Indeed, over our state’s 120 year history, we have elected only two women to the governor’s mansion, two to the US Senate and seven to the US House. And of the seven remaining women to have won statewide executive office, four of these served as Superintendent of Public Instruction, primary education long being a profession stereotypically deemed suited to women.
Forgive me for not showing my math, but I’m pretty damn sure that if “female contenders somehow get a leg up”, we’d be electing more women than men to office, not substantially less. So obviously, Joni, there’s no need to “bristle” at an assumption that clearly doesn’t hold true.