Do women get a “leg up” in WA elections?

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.


  1. 1

    Ghengis Khan spews:

    No one is stopping them and there’s even a history of success. Indeed, there’s even recognition that in a field of men they have a strong advantge — yet they are still not running.

    So it’s reasonable to suppose if they’re not choosing to run, that’s their choice.

  2. 2

    A Team spews:

    Why do women choose not to run for office? Family obligations, lack of support, lack of access to money, discomfort with taking center stage, etc. Yes, in the face of those obstacles, it’s “their choice” not to run but I’d argue we’re worse off for it as a society. A diverse and inclusive legislative body makes better and more effective decisions and policy.

  3. 3

    Country Woman spews:

    Overheard after a candidate debate between two women candidates at a Chamber of Commerce:

    “Make up or no make up?”

    Can you imagine anyone saying after a debate between two men “Aftershave, or no aftershave?”

    We’ll get better candidates when we ask better questions of ALL potential candidates, either gender.

  4. 4

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    Journalists should never run for public office. How can they be objective as reporters when they harbor personal political ambitions? How can you trust an on-air personality with political ambitious not to use her position in the news media to promote her own candidacy? Journalists who turn into politicians are whores.

  5. 5

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @3 We’ll get better candidates when Democrats stop believing they have to vote like Republicans after getting elected.

  6. 6

    sarge spews:

    Uh. Roger. She isn’t on the air any more. And when she was, she was a news anchor. She read what was put in front of her.

  7. 7


    The educated will step back from the post itself, and ask: “What is Goldy trying to draw my attention away from?”

    What’s going on in the news locally that Goldy doesn’t want you to focus on?

  8. 8

    Broadway Joe spews:

    What, did the neighbors catch you playing with dead rats out in the front yard again?

    That’s something I sure as fuck wouldn’t want to focus on…..

  9. 9

    k spews:

    Gee, let’s see, the two biggest jurisdictions outside the state itself, and troll criticizes the choice.

    GO do your chores.

  10. 10

    Broadway Joe spews:


    As to why Hutchison shouldn’t run, I give you two words: Charles Royer.

  11. 12

    Smartypants spews:

    Gotta argue with you here, Goldy.

    There have been more than seven other women to hold statewide office — certainly beyond Superintendent of Public Instruction. Off the top of my head I can think of Supreme Court Justices Mary Fairhurst, Barbara Madsen, Susan Owens, Debra Stephens, and Bobbie Bridge, plus Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn, and Lands Commissioner Jennifer Belcher. I’m sure there are more, but I can’t track them all down.

    That’s seven right there, in addition to the four School Superintendents. Women may not get a leg up, but they generally have an equal shot here in Washington.

  12. 13


    Smartypants @12,

    Well, I excluded judicial races because they’re not really political offices, and… I had no convenient source for tracking them. But even if you mix them in you’ll find women still dramatically underrepresented compared to their percentage of the electorate, so I think my premise holds.

    Regardless I’ve clarified the post to read “statewide executive office” in response to your critique.

  13. 14

    Ghengis Khan spews:

    So listen. Why presume that today there’s sexism stopping chicks from running for office?

    For example, this quote put the words “choice” in quotes to suggest there is no real choice:

    “Why do women choose not to run for office? Family obligations, lack of support, lack of access to money, discomfort with taking center stage, etc. Yes, in the face of those obstacles, it’s “their choice” not to run but”

    Ok, let’s examine one by one.

    1. Family obligations.

    Learn to say no, like the guys do.

    If you don’t say no, it’s not sexism’s fault you’re not running, it’s your fault.

    Or, be single, or be childless. Many men do. did anyone force you to have family obligations?

    2. Lack of support.

    There’s no objectie support for this claim. There have been many successful women candidates and even the post notes that in these multi-man races a woman will have the benefit of standing out. The notion there is a lack of support — that somehow people won’t donate or vote — is belied by Gregoire Cantwell Murray etc. etc.

    3. Lack of access to money.

    Look at the record, lots of women candidates have won.

    4. “discomfort with taking center stage.”

    Ah yes there’s sexist ether in the air and in infects women. You can’t point to one single act of discrimination but there’s this pervasive discrimination.

    I think we’re over this by now. Women are the gov two senators etc., women are getting more college degrees than men, etc.

    So …. if you’re not comfortable, get over it.

    You think for men they’re naturally comfortable running for office? Not so.

    So the discomfort may be another barrier that women choose not to hurdle, when they could, if they wanted to.

    Bottom line. We’re not outer Mongolia. It’s not the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s, or even the 1990s.

    There are tons of role models. There are tons of successful women candidates. If da wymen ain’t running you have to wonder….maybe they just don’t want to.

  14. 15

    Smartypants spews:

    Goldy, thanks for the edit. It really is difficult to find information on who held past offices. I searched for an hour, then simply had to go by memory.

  15. 16

    A Team spews:

    @14 – easy to wave away the problem with “if they wanted to they would”, isn’t it? The numbers would indicate that the problem is institutional/cultural.

    Are there tons of role models? How many women are CEOs of large companies. How many are partners in law firms? Do women make as much money as men for doing the same jobs? Where are the women in science and math?

    Are there tons of successful women candidates? Not as many as there are successful men candidates. There is no state with more than 40% women in their state legislatures and that number is the anomaly not the rule.

    Where’s our woman president?

    And really, to suggest that women should choose between a family and public service is insulting and makes my point.

  16. 17

    Ghengis Khan spews:

    @16 I most certainly did not wave any problem away. I discussed it. “The numbers would indicate that the problem is institutional/cultural.” No, the numbers indicate we got the top 3 politicians in the state being women plus we had >>40% of the leg was women plus we had majority of seattle city council So the answer to “Are there tons of role models?” is yes, in Washington State, there are tons. Which is what I said. CEO’s law partners, etc. average salaries, math, the president etc. are not about whether there are sexism barriers to women running for office and winning office in Wash. state.
    “And really, to suggest that women should choose between a family and public service is insulting and makes my point.” No, since there are tons of role models of women who ran and won, and we right now got lots in office, then the fact is, there aren’t any sexism barriers. Blaming inplied sexism via the slight deficit in the numbers we got in Wash. state is a stretch dear, and there’s no reason to think in the last 4 years all of a sudden things in Seattle got MORE sexist…so if there ain’t women filing in Seattle

    it’s cause they just don’t want to.

    Face it gotta be somewhere where sexism has kinda petered out. Seattle city council where we used to have mainly women in office would seem to be the place.

  17. 18

    Politically Incorrect spews:

    Roger Rabbit said:

    “Journalists should never run for public office. How can they be objective as reporters when they harbor personal political ambitions?”

    Exactly! Reporters are biased because they think they know what’s best for everybody. They know how to run the world, just ask them. I’d like it if journalists reported the news versus trying to support whatever ideology they adhere to. Just tell me what happened, journalists: I can take it from there, thanks!

  18. 19

    Crusader spews:

    Roger Rabbit just can’t accept that socialism is dying all over the world. THey just got rejected in European elections and California Democrats just threw the unions under the bus. Bad times to be a socialist idiot.