Despite being half the population, women are still underrepresented in politics. Women make up only 20 percent of the U.S. Senate and 19 percent of the House. Washington state is a bit of an exception, but as Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers notes, “There’s still work to be done.”
It was 1993, and newly elected U.S. Sen. Patty Murray was speaking on the Senate floor about family medical leave, a workplace safeguard that didn’t exist at the time.
“I told a story about a friend of mine whose son had leukemia,” Murray recalled. “She was literally told by her boss if she took time off she would lose her job.”
After the debate, as Murray was walking off the chamber’s floor, she was stopped by a longtime male senator. “We don’t tell personal stories here in the Senate,” he said.
Murray, a Democrat from Washington, fired back:
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“I came here to make politics work for everyone and policies to work for everyone. And if people understand the impact, that’s how we’ll change laws.”
It’s a story Murray, now in the Senate leadership, likes to tell, illustrating the growing influence women have had on the nation’s political scene. The Senate went from having two female senators to six the year the Family and Medical Leave Act was approved, with the women helping ensure its passage. And these days, it’s difficult to hear a political speech that doesn’t include a personal story.
Yet despite their influence, women are still underrepresented in politics. Women make up half of the population but represent only 20 percent of the U.S. Senate and 19 percent of the U.S. House. On average, state legislatures have 24 percent women.
“We are a narrow minority. Most states have never elected a woman to higher office,” Murray said.
Kelly Dittmar, a Rutgers University professor and scholar with the Center for American Women and Politics, called it a problematic trend. “We’re seeing women advance in society, culturally … (But) there are still hurdles gaining power in the political sphere,” Dittmar said.
Washington state stands out, however.
Women from both parties have made history and continue to do so. Not long ago, the state’s three top political spots were all filled by women: Chris Gregoire was governor and both of the state’s U.S. senators, Maria Cantwell and Murray, are women. Only 11 states have elected both a female governor and a female U.S. senator.
“The dynamic in Washington (state) is one of the most interesting in the entire country,” said Jim Moore, director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore. “You have two powerful senators … You have (Cathy McMorris) Rodgers, who is one of the top Republicans in the House, which is fantastic. You just don’t see it in other states.”
But they all have their stories.
Murray, the state’s first female U.S. senator, turned the phrase “mom in tennis shoes” from an insult into her campaign slogan. It was originally tossed at her dismissively, as in, you can’t accomplish much being a “mom in tennis shoes.”
Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, jokingly referred to Congress as a “man cave.”
There was the time she was pregnant with her daughter, Abigail, and a high-level negotiation was happening in a cigar smoke-filled room, where she happened to be the only woman.
“I stood in the corner, chimed in for a minute and left,” she said. “The men apologized later; they weren’t thinking in those terms. It wasn’t malicious.”
Sometimes the gender stereotypes that are so familiar they feel like a cliché still ring true. A female gets labeled as strident or pushy.
“Someone like Sen. Barbara Boxer stands up and fights for her people and her state, and people say she’s pushing really hard,” Cantwell said. “Well, I look at it like she’s fighting for clean air, or clean water.”