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UPDATE: Panel discussion on Wednesday celebrates 100 years of women in the Washington Legislature

Post by Brad Shannon / The Olympian on Feb. 11, 2013 at 3:17 pm with No Comments »
February 12, 2013 5:28 pm

Nina CroakeFrances AxtellSeveral current and former lawmakers are hosting a panel discussion Wednesday afternoon to honor the 100 years that women have served in the Washington Legislature. The event comes 100 years after Frances C. Axtell from Bellingham and Nena J. Croake from Tacoma – the first two women elected – took office.

“Historically it’s very significant when you consider that women didn’t get the vote until 1910 in this state – and after a huge campaign. Although the first two women were elected 100 years ago there weren’t many women in the Legislature until basically the ’60s,’’ Democratic Sen. Karen Fraser of Thurston County said.

The women who broke in first were elected in 1912, or two years after the right of women’s suffrage was placed in the Washington Constitution. Also elected that year was the state’s first woman holder of statewide executive office, Josephine Corliss Preston, who served as superintendent of public instruction.

The panel discussion runs from 1 to 2:30 p.m. in the Cherberg Building’s hearing room 3, and is moderated by Shanna Stevenson, coordinator of the  Washington Women’s History Consortium. Panelists include four current legislators: Fraser, who is chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus; Senate Republican Caucus chair Linda Evans Parlette of Wenatchee; Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla; and Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver.

Also confirmed to attend are a half-dozen former lawmakers: ex-Sen. Rosa Franklin, D-Tacoma, who served through 2010 and was president pro tem; ex-Rep. Lorraine Hine, who served the Des Moines area until 1993; former Senate Democratic Caucus chair Harriet Spanel who served four terms in 1993-2009; and former Sen. Shirley Winsley, R-Fircrest, who served parts of four terms in 1989-2004; former Republican representative and senator Jeanine Long, who served Snohomish County for two decades between 1983-2003; former Republican representative Louise Miller, who served northeast King County during 1983-1994; and ex-Rep. Mary Ellen McCaffree, a King County Republican who wrote a book published in 2011 (“Politics of the Possible’’) that explored the Legislature’s politics during the 1960s.

The House and Senate also are holding a joint session Wednesday at 11:30. The events also serve as a memorial for former lawmakers who died in the past year,  including Lorraine Wojahnwho had been a major force in the House and Senate.

A new legislative web site – linked here – has information about the women who have served over time. The  Women’s History Consortium also has biographical information on all women who have served.

Despite the prominence of women in Washington politics, the 44 women in the Washington Legislature today is less than a decade ago, and the state now ranks No. 9 in the country, according to the Center for American Women at Rutgers University. Washington had ranked No. 1, having the most women from 1993 to 2004, and the peak was  60 women out of 147 House and Senate members in both 1999 and 2000. 

Fraser said the number of women serving in legislatures is down nationally, too.

This year Washington has only one woman, Secretary of State Kim Wyman, serving in a statewide executive office.

There is some debate as to why fewer women are serving, but Debbie Walsh, the director of the Rutgers center, offered a few reasons in a column written by The News Tribune’s Peter Callaghan in June that said:

Our research shows that women bring a different set of perspectives and experiences,” Walsh said. “They will give higher priority to issues of women, families and children.”

The why is anyone’s guess but Walsh notes that the number of women running is declining both in Washington and nationally.

“It’s not that the women aren’t winning, it’s that they’re not running,” Walsh said. In that year of the woman in 1992, 85 female legislative candidates were on the November ballot and 53 won. In 2010, 57 female candidates made the general election ballot and 36 won.

Cathy Allen, a Democratic political consultant in Seattle is working with a national effort called Project 2012 with the goal of increasing the number of female candidates. Allen said of the 46 women she tried to recruit this year, only six said yes.

A common reaction after she asked them to run was, “I thought you liked me.”

“They’d rather get a job, they’d rather raise their kids, they’d rather have balance in their lives,” Allen said of those who opted against running.

“Women are deciding they don’t want this crap,” Allen said. And that’s different for men? Apparently so. For every two men she recruited, two said yes.

“Women, more than men, realize how tough the job is and the sacrifice to their soul that is required.”

Despite the retrenchment, Washington has a majority of women on the state Supreme Court (its chief justice is Barbara Madsen); both U.S. senators from Washington are women (Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell); and three of the state’s 10 U.S. House members are women (Suzan DelBene, Jaime Herrera Beutler and Cathy McMorris Rodgers).

UPDATE: Lawmakers also plan a 3:30 p.m. event in the Senate Rules Room to celebrate the life of Wojahn. 

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