With Hillary Clinton battling to become the nation’s first woman president, Washington female political leaders reflect on how far they’ve come and the barriers that still remain.
Early in her career as an assistant attorney general, Chris Gregoire was told by an opposing counsel, a man, that she didn’t belong in a courtroom. Gregoire, who would go on to serve three terms as attorney general and two as governor, said the lawyer told the judge to send her home and get a male attorney to handle the case.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Madsen, who graduated in the same 1977 law-school class as Gregoire, remembers early in her career when her boss at a Seattle law firm told her to take off her suit jacket when she went to court so the judge could see the outline of her breasts.
“He’ll enjoy that,” the boss said.
The candidacy of Hillary Clinton and the possibility that after a brutal campaign she could become the nation’s first woman president gives female political leaders a chance to reflect on the barriers they’ve faced in their professional lives and the challenges that remain for women considering political careers today.
While grateful for the support they received, many women leaders in the state say that, like Clinton, they’ve been judged on their looks, told to be tough but not too tough and had to balance the demands of their families and their careers, often in uncaring work environments.
And, they say, they’re still subject to sexual harassment.
Just ask M. Lorena González, one of five women on the Seattle City Council who voted in May against a request to vacate a city street sought for a new sports arena by investor Chris Hansen. With Hansen announcing last week that he would seek to privately finance the deal, Gonzalez was interviewed on a local radio station about her thinking.
“It took an hour and 15 minutes after the reporter posted the story for the C-word to show up in the comments,” said Gonzalez, a former civil-rights attorney. “I had the audacity to express that I was interested in seeing more details and more specifics.”
Many women in public office also note a double standard to which Clinton is held. While men take steps along a career path to lead to better jobs and more responsibility, Clinton’s 30 years of experience in public policy are viewed by some critics as unattractively ambitious.
“When you think about the whole idea of women running for office, it really comes down to the question of power and authority. And who we think is entitled to it and who we think is not,” said Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who served for two years on the City Council before running for mayor in 2009.
Strickland, who holds a master’s in business administration, said that every time she considered running for office, she was told she would lose or was taken out for coffee to be talked out of it.
“When I ran for mayor, someone told me he was disappointed in me, that a man who had already declared was better suited for the job,” Strickland said.
Lagging behind men
Washington state ranks second in the country for the number of women in elected office, from local to federal. We’re one of the few states with two female U.S. senators and three women in Congress. Women now make up six of the nine state Supreme Court justices and five of nine Seattle City Council members.
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But Washington now has just one woman among the nine statewide elected executive positions leading state agencies. Seattle hasn’t had a woman mayor since Bertha Knight Landes in 1926. A woman has yet to serve as King County executive.
The share of women in the state Legislature — 33 percent — is actually down from a high of about 40 percent through most of the 1990s.
Why do women still lag behind men in holding public office?
Women generally have fewer connections to fundraising networks, more doubts that they are qualified to run and may lack the support of political parties that can act as gatekeepers to new candidates, said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics.
She said historically women also have weighed the job commitments against the demands of their personal lives.
“They ask, ‘How does this affect my family, my children, my community?’ ” Dittmar said. “Men are more likely to wake up one morning and say, ‘I’d make a great public official.’ ”
The year both Gregoire and Madsen were first elected to state office — 1992 — became known as the Year of the Woman. The number of women in Congress went from 32 to 54, and though they represented just 10 percent of the total, it was the largest jump in U.S. history, Dittmar said.
The catalyst was the confirmation hearing of Clarence Thomas for the U.S. Supreme Court the previous year. A young attorney, Anita Hill, described the sexual harassment she said she’d faced while working for Thomas. An all-male Senate Judiciary Committee asked Hill what she had done to provoke him.
“The response was so outrageous. She was made into the perpetrator,” recalled Madsen, who, after trying unsuccessfully to recruit women judges with more seniority to run for an open seat on the state Supreme Court, decided she would run herself.
“I thought, ‘If this is how people in power treat women, the wrong people are in power.’ ” Madsen, a Seattle Municipal Court judge, had four children when she launched her statewide campaign, the youngest just 6 months old.
She is now running for re-election to her fifth term.
Women with successful political careers also say they owe a debt to the men in their lives who encouraged their aspirations, covered the home front when they traveled to Olympia and mentored them once they were in office.
State Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, is stepping down in January after 20 years serving the 12th Legislative District in Eastern Washington. She grew up on an orchard with parents who, she said, instilled a strong work ethic.
“Never once were we told ‘a girl can’t do that!’” Parlette said.
She was one of just six women out of a class of about 50 in her pharmacy program at Washington State University in 1968. She was working at a pharmacy early in her career when a colleague asked if she knew she was making less money than he did. Parlette asked her boss to adjust her salary. When he refused, she quit.
Elected to the House in 1996 after her two sons were grown, Parlette said she was mentored by her two “dynamic seatmates” from the 12th District, then Speaker of the House Clyde Ballard and state Sen. George Sellar. She ran unopposed for Sellar’s seat when he retired in 2000.
It was Ballard, she said, who encouraged her to seek a leadership position in the Senate where men held the top four spots in the Republican caucus. She ran for caucus chair promising to “change the face of leadership,” and served for 10 more years.
Parlette is not a fan of Hillary Clinton.
“As a woman, I’m disappointed that she does not have the trust and respect of the American people,” Parlette said. “If elected, she will have to work very hard to earn that trust. She’s in the negative right now.”
State Rep. Shelly Short, R-Addy, represents the 7th Legislative District in the far northeast corner of the state. She’s a former paralegal and worked as an aide to former U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt and to state Rep. Joel Kretz. She initially declined to run for an open seat in her district, saying, “No, I’m behind the scenes.”
But she got support from her husband who she described as “an equal partner” in raising their two children, who were 16 and 12 at the time.
She’s now caucus chair for the House Republicans, a leadership position in which she said she was challenged to manage “48 Type A” personalities and keep discussions both respectful and on track.
“It was hard for me initially to say ‘that’s enough’ or ‘take it outside.’ ”
Short is less critical of Clinton, seeing her potential election as an achievement for women on par with Barack Obama’s election in 2008 as the country’s first African-American president.
“Anytime you have a first, it tells me that if you want to reach for that level, you can,” Short said.
How are younger women faring in elected office?
State Rep. Jessyn Farrell, 42, struggled as a young Democratic legislator from Seattle’s 46th district to find child care for her two young children. Re-elected in 2014, the former attorney gave birth to her third child and struggled through another session to nurse and get adequate sleep. Her husband works full time.
“The schedule is grueling and unpredictable. You may be there until 2 a.m. How do you pay for child care, and does it even exist?” Farrell asked.
She was told by one legislator that wearing her long hair down was distracting and by another that wearing her hair up was distracting. A male lobbyist passing in a Capitol hallway patted her behind.
Farrell said the election of more women at all levels of government could mean more action on policies that benefit families, including affordable child care and paid parental leave. And those women may demand that the political institutions themselves change to better support the people who work there.
“We’ll see if we can evolve,” she said.
Gregoire said there were almost no women in elective office in the 1960s. There were no women CEOs. Women earned less than 60 cents for every dollar earned by a man.
Today, she said, women make 79 cents on the dollar. There are 21 CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. A woman is competing for the highest office in the land.
“While progress has been made,” she said, “it’s an unfinished agenda.”