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
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
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
"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
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
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. …