Women Legislators Rewrite Old Rules

Article excerpt

ASK WHAT DIFFERENCE women make in the state Legislature, and the first story you hear is about Lucas Brown.

Last year, when Lucas was 1, his mother, state Rep. Lisa Brown, had to bring him to her desk on the House floor one evening. Her day-care center had closed. He was sitting quietly in her lap when Brown, a single mother, got the word: A member had complained about Lucas' presence. She would have to take him off the floor.

The response to the demand was much louder than Lucas had been. Brown's colleagues were outraged. The little boy became a symbol of government's lack of compassion for families.

This year, Lucas celebrated his birthday on the House floor with a party and a standing ovation.

In Washington, women make up 40 percent of the Legislature - the highest proportion in the country. Nationwide, women's share of legislative seats is a little more than 20 percent, a fourfold increase from 1973.

In Washington, a state known for populist tendencies and the independence of its voters, women head the budget-writing committees in both the House and the Senate. Four of eight statewide elected officials are women. Washington sent Patty Murray to the U.S. Senate in 1992. In at least one district, the entire legislative and congressional delegations are women.

Voters in Washington seem oblivious to the record-breaking numbers of women in office. They seem inclined toward women candidates and impressed by what they do in office.

Skot Smith, 27, manager of a stationery store in Olympia, had no idea that 40 percent of his Legislature was made up of women, but he liked it. "I think women bring a different attitude, a different perception about how things should be done," he said.

Across the United States, women elected in 1992, the so-called Year of the Woman, are being watched to see what difference they will make. The magnifying glass is particularly turned on places where the numbers of women have reached critical mass, as they have in Washington state.

"The nation is watching Washington," said Nancyhelen Fischer, state chairwoman of the National Women's Political Caucus.

Legislators, lobbyists and political analysts say women are changing both the style and the substance of what goes on in the Statehouse overlooking Puget Sound.

Capitol watchers credit female legislators with helping pass a bill on a higher minimum wage last year, with protection of social services in a budget-cutting era, and with a greater involvement of citizen groups in fashioning the state's budget. Fischer and others expect even bigger changes once the newest crop of female lawmakers gains experience.

The women have a reputation in the capital of working harder than their male counterparts, of being less interested in politics than in issues and for accomplishing things through consultation, not confrontation. …

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