Washington State loves women: Washington voters granted women the right to vote in 1910, a full decade before women's suffrage became the law of the land. And in 1926, Seattle elected its first lady mayor, Bertha Knight Landes, making her the first woman to hold that position in any major US city.
But lately, even as the country makes strides to catch up to our love of kick-ass women, our state has been slipping down the ranks. We used to be first in the country for electing women to the state legislature—this year, we're eighth. In 2004, 37 percent of our state legislators were women; we've dropped to 30 percent this year. Locally, those numbers are worse: Since 2003, only 26 percent of candidates in city races have been women (we're counting city council, city attorney, and mayor, since, while school board positions are elected citywide, let's face it, it's not a springboard to anything more than early political retirement). We haven't had a female mayor in Seattle since Landes's reign, and the three women running for mayor this year—a Frisbee coach/librarian, a failed Seattle school board candidate, and a starry-eyed socialist—received ratings of merely "adequate" or "not qualified" from the Municipal League of King County. In other words, the three women running for mayor are joke candidates. Seattle is facing an embarrassing dearth of qualified women running for office.
But there are smart, ambitious, qualified women behind the scenes at all levels of local politics. So why aren't they running for office?
Women Have a Money Problem
When considering a run for office, a candidate's first step is calling a consultant, whose first question will be "Can you call X number of people tonight and ask them for X number of dollars to fund your campaign?" If they can't, they're not viable.
"Many women are daunted by the need to raise money, and how much money you need to raise," explains Linda Mitchell, president of the National Women's Political Caucus of Washington, which recruits women to run for office and offers campaign and leadership training.
In Seattle politics, a campaign can cost more than a quarter-million dollars—which is one reason why aspiring politicians like Noel Frame ran last year to represent a state legislative district, which contains less than one quarter of the city's population. "You can win a legislative race by organizing and knocking on doors," says Frame, who ran to represent the 36th District in Northwest Seattle. Frame says she would "be much more inclined" to run for Seattle City Council if we moved to a district system, such as one proposed on this year's November ballot, which would divide the city into seven smaller segments. "I could connect with a finite amount of voters, at the door," she says.
Some municipalities have started to adopt district elections or public campaign financing models (which Seattle voters will also be voting on this fall). Women are twice as likely to take advantage of public campaign financing systems, according to the Center for Governmental Studies, a public interest nonprofit.
Not only are women reluctant to raise funds, says Pramila Jayapal, who started the immigrant advocacy organization OneAmerica, but "elections often have a lot of business money," and "a lot of that business money doesn't go to women"—perhaps, she posits, because of stereotypes that men belong in leadership positions.
But Senator Patty Murray, who's been representing Washington State in the US Senate for 20 years and is the first woman to chair the powerful budget committee, says that when women dismiss the myth that women can't raise money, they're actually incredibly successful: "The women who are senators today have raised more money than their male counterparts," she says. "I think it's because we really work hard at it because we're worried about it."
For example, in 2012, the Democratic women running for senate blasted their male competitors, in part through funneled donations from groups like EMILY's List, which supports pro-choice women candidates. Multiple Republican women outraised their 2012 opponents, too. And generally, academic research into the gender gap in politics shows that women suffer no fundraising disadvantage.
Murray adds, "More women should donate politically. Men feel freer to open their wallets." She's right: Opensecrets.org, which tracks political contributions, reports that, historically, men donate far more to political candidates than women do.
The Political Establishment Doesn't Recruit as Many Women
There's a mantra in politics: You have to ask women at least three times before they'll say yes to running for office. But what if that question isn't raised at all?
"Women are not asked to run for office," says Frame, who ran in her state legislative race against two women and five men. "Young men are asked to run all the time, but we—we simply aren't asked."
Being encouraged to run is crucial for many men and women. An American University study released earlier this year (cringingly titled "Girls Just Wanna Not Run") notes that if they were encouraged to seek for public office—by their families, friends, or mentors—66 percent of young women and 84 percent of young men considered a career in politics. But if they weren't encouraged to do so, only 21 percent of women and 32 percent of men even considered the idea. The study, which was trying to understand the ambition gap between men and women, also reinforces what Frame says: Women simply aren't socialized to consider running for office the same way men are.
And that's cemented later in life by institutional barriers. "I don't think we have the same commitment from the political parties," argues Jayapal. "The political establishment keeps pushing forward their own candidates who come up through whatever traditional political tracks there are," she says. Jayapal, Mitchell, Frame, and Murray concur that women must be recruited early. But right now? "I don't think that structure is there," Jayapal says.
Women Have a Kid Problem
Few men go on record saying they won't run for office out of concern for their children, many women point out. But that's still a factor for ambitious women.
During her yearlong campaign, Frame says, "I experienced a lot of guilt not being at home to take care of my teenage cousin." (Frame is the teen's primary caregiver.) "There's a superwoman complex that a lot of women have to battle against."
Jayapal, too, has a kid to think of, which may have influenced her decision last year not to run for office. "I have a 16-year-old son... If I want to run for something, now would be a good time, because I've left OneAmerica," she says. "But I don't want to give up being around for his last two years." That could change if workplaces, political ones included, had more "family-friendly policies," like child care and flexible schedules, she continues.
A hostile campaign environment might also affect a family. Senator Murray, who's been recruiting women to run for office for 20 years, says that "women tend to say long before men do, 'Well, I'm worried about what running will do to my family, with all the negativity out there.'" Her advice is to involve kids in a campaign from the start. They can take it, she says, and never running means your would-be critics win by default. "I figure that's giving it to them, and we should be tough."
Women Are Reluctant to Run Against Peers
Women have more qualms about challenging friends and colleagues than men do—and they're more likely to be punished for running.
"I still get chastised, by women, for running against a woman 20 years my senior," says Frame, who lost her race in the 36th District to Gael Tarleton, a 54-year-old former Seattle port commissioner whose politics have catered more to big-money donors and business interests. Frame says, "Older generations of women feel like they've patiently waited to run for office and now it's their turn. That's not helpful, and it has to stop."
Compounding that problem is a gender-specific inferiority complex.
"I think women are more likely to focus on their weaknesses while men are more likely to say, 'There is no one better,' and have healthier egos," notes Anne Levinson, a former Seattle Municipal Court judge and current civilian auditor of the Seattle Police Department, who has been encouraged for years to run for mayor (or any higher office). The American University study notes that, professional and educational backgrounds being equal, young men are almost 60 percent more likely to see themselves as "very qualified" to run for office, while young women are more than twice as likely to rate themselves "not at all qualified."
One woman, who asked to remain anonymous, theorized that Seattle City Council president Sally Clark, who happens to be a lesbian, stayed out of the race for mayor—a position Clark has the knowledge and skills to execute—in an effort to be polite to a gay man who knows less about city issues but was already running for mayor: state senator Ed Murray. "Does being a legislator qualify you for running the city?" the woman dished. "Sally wouldn't run for mayor because of Ed—she's being deferential to the LGBT community. But she has way more familiarity and experience in city government."
Women Think They Can Contribute More Elsewhere
Women interested in public service might avoid elected office if they feel they can be more effective elsewhere. "If you're going to spend time and make change, are you going to go into the political arena, or are you going to a place where they do not marginalize women and people of color?" says Jayapal, who is now working on a national campaign aimed at engaging women in immigration reform.
This is especially true in a progressive city like Seattle, where "women might be content with the value decisions being made," explains Levinson, contrasting Seattle's pro-public-breast-feeding and paid-sick-leave legislation with a recent daylong, woman-led filibuster in Austin, Texas, to block a severely restrictive senate abortion bill. "If you're living in a red city, or state, you might be more compelled to stand up and fight," Levinson says.
What Can Be Done?
While institutional barriers remain pervasive, many of them amount to discouraging (or simply not encouraging) women to run. But once a woman files for office, she may have an advantage.
A recent article by Molly Ball in the Atlantic dismantled the conventional wisdom that women are disadvantaged in elections, saying they now have an equal shot at winning. In recent studies, Ball notes, voters penalize male and female candidates the same amount for slipups and evaluate their traits equally. And media bias is slipping away, too. Citing a study of the 2010 midterm elections, Ball says newspaper articles on congressional races gave equal coverage to male and female candidates. There may actually be an advantage for women: Voters perceive inexperienced female candidates as stronger and more honest than an identically inexperienced male candidate—perhaps, a consultant told Ball, because women have "outsider" status that voters like.
So why are there still fewer women running? Ball concludes: "Women's own perceptions haven't caught up with reality... perhaps because they're convinced they will have a tougher time, face more scrutiny, and be subjected to unfair attacks and double standards."
The contemporary truth is, women can win—now more than ever.
If they run.
And if they run, they are some of our best champions to stop the never-ending Republican onslaught of bills to restrict abortion, cut off health-care services for families, and undermine basic cores of the progressive platform. Getting more women in office isn't just about gender equity—it's good politics. We just need more Janes to run, because when Jane runs, Jane can beat the hell out of Dick.
This article has been updated. Levinson was a city judge, not a county judge.