Washington State's Women Change Tenor of Politics All-Female Race for US Senate Seat Fits into State's Long History of Women in High Places

Article excerpt

On a yacht in Seattle's Lake Union the other night, politicians were schmoozing with party activists and big donors. The three stars of the evening - all United States senators - were women, as were most of the activists and campaign contributors writing out thousand- dollar checks. In a downtown office the next morning, experienced political trainers were teaching leadership skills to a group of 12- to 14-year-olds. The trainers were women, their students all girls.

Elective politics still may be mostly a man's game in the United States. But in Washington State, a long history of women in politics tells a different story. Already, women here have had a significant impact on how the state's political processes work. And the future has a decidedly female cast as well.

Washington has a higher proportion of female state lawmakers than any other state (39 percent), a significant number of the congressional delegation are women, and women hold key statewide offices including attorney general and chief justice of the state Supreme Court. And for just the third time in the country's history, two women are battling it out here for a seat in the US Senate - incumbent Democrat Patty Murray and Republican US Rep. Linda Smith. This is not just a "year of the woman" fluke. Seattle was the first big city to have a woman mayor (Bertha Landes back in the 1920s), women have been in the state legislature for 102 years, and women were voting here before national suffrage. (Ironically, they lost the vote in 1889 when Washington went from territorial status to statehood.) Twenty years ago, Gov. Dixy Lee Ray (D) proved a woman could wield political power as willfully as a man, and in recent years women have headed both major parties in the state. "We've had a history of strong, active women since the territorial days," says Liz Pierini, president of the League of Women Voters of Washington, whose daughter is the state's assistant attorney general. "Women were admitted as peers early on." They're appointed to high posts here as well. The top officials at the Seattle Port Commission and Sea-Tac International Airport are both women. There are several reasons for this. Among these: a sense of openness and independence that is part of US Western history, an entrepreneurial legacy in the Pacific Northwest in which women played a strong economic role, and less religious influence of a kind that stifled political progress for women in other parts of the country. "It's been a school of hard knocks for women," says Ms. Pierini, granddaughter of pioneers. "But they keep coming, they keep persisting." Although the Seattle area is one of the most liberal in the country, it's not just a place for Democrats. Republican women hold important offices as well, including two seats in Congress and majority leader in the state's House of Representatives. According to participants and observers, this has affected the process of governing. "The dynamics are very interesting," says state Sen. Jeanne Kohl, a Democrat who also teaches women's studies at the University of Washington. "When you get a critical mass of women, it makes it easier for men to go along on issues like health care and child care. …