GOV. Jay Inslee made history by announcing the appointment of Mary Yu to the state Supreme Court. Yu is the first woman of color and the first openly gay woman to serve on our state’s highest court. With her addition, we now have a record high of six women serving on the state Supreme Court.
Her appointment is a celebrated win for Washington’s justice system. But it’s also a remarkable win for women in communities across the state, particularly for women from underrepresented communities.
But the state is still a long way from equity in elected office. Women make up fewer than one-third of our state’s Legislature, one-third of larger city mayors and just 35 percent of all state judges. Women of color specifically make up just 21 percent of female state legislators across the nation and only 5 percent of total state legislators. In Washington, women of color make up just 3.4 percent of the state Legislature.
Not one African-American woman is serving in Olympia and state Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, is the only openly gay woman in the Legislature. And while a number of millennial men have been recently elected or appointed to office, young women are completely unrepresented in Olympia.
These numbers aren’t just disproportionate, they are flat-out alarming. A diverse, representational government gives voice to working women, to communities of color and to LGBTQ families.
The process of running and serving in office must be more inclusive of all women if we want public policy and process to represent the wide range of priorities and needs for women and families.
Washington state has a long legacy of women paving the way toward equal representation dating back to the early 1890s. Suffragettes like May Arkwright Hutton in Spokane fought to secure women’s suffrage 10 years before the 19th Amendment.
The National Women’s Political Caucus of Washington continues to support this legacy in part through the annual May Hutton Society event, now in its seventh year, which raises funds for the state’s women candidates. The caucus has been bringing women together from across the state for more than 40 years to celebrate the diversity of women’s leadership and discuss how to make the process of running and serving more inclusive for all women.
If our government is to be truly representational, we must work to develop a diverse pipeline of women for elected leadership and invest in their success. In a state like Washington, where even Supreme Court judicial seats are elected, running for office has a price tag that is often an obstacle for aspiring women leaders.
Research shows that women give to female candidates at a lower rate than men. One of the biggest barriers for women running for office is fundraising. It’s time for women to open up their pockets for female candidates and support a diverse set of leaders. It’s time for political parties to support candidates that represent the diverse set of experiences and backgrounds that comprise this great state.
Inslee’s recent appointment of Mary Yu did just that, and in the 2014 election voters can do the same.
Alexis Oliver is the chair of the National Women’s Political Caucus of Washington Diversity Committee.