“No two countries run by women would ever go to war.”
That recent judgment by Meta Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg may be open to debate, but we have seen clear evidence during the pandemic that when women assume political leadership, it leads to improved outcomes.
That is one of many reasons to celebrate the strides that women, and especially women of color, are making in American public life. We are finally catching up to the rest of the world, with the first woman of color ever elected on a national ticket serving as vice president and the first Black woman confirmed as a justice of the U. S. Supreme Court.
Still, at the same time Kamala Harris ascended to the second-highest office in the land, the U.S. Senate lost its only member who was a Black woman and the only woman of South Asian descent. Her departure left only three women of color in the Senate. Overall, a mere 9.2% of members of Congress are women of color.
In state legislatures, that number is even lower — an anemic 8.2%.
These numbers remind us how fragile our progress still is and how long a road lies ahead before our government reflects the diversity of the governed.
In the Washington state Senate, where the two of us serve, we are steadily making progress toward greater representation. Since 2018, we have doubled the number of women of color in our ranks twice — from one to two in 2018, and from two to four in 2019. Since then, we have welcomed two more, increasing our ranks to six of 49 state senators.
Why do these statistics matter? Women of color are not just joining the Legislature, we’re changing it. As co-deputy majority leaders, we are changing the dialogue. We are bringing in a new culture, a newly collaborative and inclusive approach to a body that is steeped in tradition and slow to change.
We’re already making a mark on what gets done and how, putting collaboration and inclusion first. Nearly 95% of the bills passed in the Legislature this year were bipartisan. A mere 17 bills passed on party-line votes. That’s the result of a culture that begins with listening. During debate on one of those party-line bills, Senate Minority Leader John Braun said that, despite the fact that he was not going to vote for the bill, he appreciated the inclusive process that had incorporated feedback from both parties and reshaped the bill: “I appreciate the effort to find some common ground, to try to improve the bill by listening, in this case, across the aisle, and I will end with just a simple ‘thank you’ for that effort.”
It doesn’t matter where the idea comes from: good policy is good policy.
Good governance starts with access to democracy. First and foremost, a responsible government safeguards the sanctity of the most fundamental right in a democracy: the vote. Only if everyone has equal access to the ballot box can everyone have equal access to the halls of power. When one of us was elected in a special election in 2017, and Democrats retook control of our state Senate, the first thing we did was pass a package of laws that made Washington a national leader in strengthening voting rights — work we have continued in the following years.
These laws have made it easier to register and vote. And the people are stepping up to the plate. In 2020, nearly 90% of all eligible Washingtonians were registered to vote and more than 75% voted — both records in our state.
As proud as we are of these achievements, we must remember that voting is not the goal of democracy but the means. As elected officials, we must amplify the voices of those who have chosen us to represent them. We must keep faith with them in the laws we pass. And we must strive for a future in which electing a woman of color to the nation’s highest office is no longer extraordinary but simply the new normal.