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The State of Elected Women in Washington

My daughter turns 13 this month and, as I order her birthday cake, all I can think about is making sure she has a fair shot at whatever it is she wants in life. Whether she pursues her current dream of being an artist or decides to run a Fortune 500 company, I sleep better at night knowing that the work I am doing will give her a safer and more welcoming entrance into adulthood. As a soon-to-be Master’s in Social Work, my passion is to help the underrepresented and underserved populations live in healthy and fair conditions. In my work with ReflectUS, I am able to pursue many of these goals simultaneously. 

Washington already has many women in office, more, in fact, than most other states but that does not mean our work is done. To give some context, in 2019, Washington was ranked third in the country with respect to women’s representation. That is to say, 43% of our legislative seats were held by women. As of 2021, Washington has moved to 9th place, with 42.2% of our legislative seats being filled by women. More specifically, Washington remarkably has two women in the US Senate and six in the U.S. House of Representatives as well as 19 women mayors (in cities with more than 30,000 people), 19 State Senators and 43 State Representatives.  Consequently, these numbers are quite laudable, indeed.  Yet, there is a larger conversation around support for women once they’re in office. 

Not only do we still have to reach that 50% representation but we need to make sure we are supporting the women who have successfully made it into office. Throughout my conversations with elected women across the state, themes such as toxic masculinity and feelings of inadequacy when entering office are top of mind. This only solidifies the issue that this system was not originally built for or with women in mind. To this day, we are still running into hurdles because of a biased system–for example, during a conversation with a City Councilmember, she recalled instances where decisions would often be made in the men’s restroom instead of in chambers, amplifying her fear of joining what is still a “boys club.” Additionally, in trainings led by ReflectUS partner Fix Democracy First, I have learned that many women are interested in being involved in civic and political leadership but have very little understanding of how to get started or where to look for help. ReflectUS Washington along with its partner Fix Democracy First are strategizing and discussing ways to impact the systemic challenges Washington women face.  Finding ways to support current elected women while also finding ways to change the overall system for future generations is vital for an inclusive and strong democracy. 

Another issue that impacts Washington in a particular way is the underrepresentation of tribal communities. Of the numbers listed above, Washington has one woman in office who identifies as Native American. This is problematic for many reasons. Washington is home to 29 federally recognized tribes with many more that are not federally recognized and over 140,000 individuals throughout the state that identify as a member of a Native Tribe. In addition to the lack of representation in leadership, a significant issue impacting the Native American community is redistricting. Many tribes are divided among multiple districts causing breakdown in communication and ability to make cohesive decisions. Many tribal leaders are advocating for unifying their tribes within single districts and have been successful in some areas but there is still work to do. As ReflectUS Washington Program Manager, I want to find ways to be of service to these communities, to help advocate for not only fair representation of their tribes but also equal representation in civic and political leadership among Native American women. 

As I begin my tenure as ReflectUS Washington Program manager, I see many opportunities throughout Washington State to help women reach their political and professional aspirations.  In particular, I am discovering that women across the political spectrum are concerned about similar issues – ranging from homelessness, climate change and the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Women from all walks of life and different regions of the state are working to address these concerns. My goal is to find ways to bring these women together to share ideas and resources related to these overlapping issues. Additionally, it is important to support these women in their civic and political leadership goals. To accomplish this, I have begun listening tours with women across the state to learn what is being done and what needs to be addressed. I am attending multiple conferences and events within the state and beyond to gain a deeper understanding of women’s concerns while also sharing what I have already learned in terms of how we might approach some of our common problems. 

The Washington ReflectUS program will focus on both leadership development and collective barriers.  As such, I have created a leadership council that brings women into the same space to share their ideas and learn from others how they might solve similar issues. Moreover, I am working with partners such as Fix Democracy First both to identify the barriers and develop strategies to address the policies preventing women’s civic and political leadership. Fix Democracy First has already started with a virtual training series dedicated to teaching and helping women understand the political process. We are also working together to develop new and innovative ways to encourage civic and political involvement across the state.

I have lived in Washington State for over two decades and am proud of all that we have accomplished as a state thus far but I know we can do better. In my new role, I plan to work with individuals, groups and organizations that have similar goals and want to see women succeed in civic and political leadership. Our developing Leadership Council is the perfect place for these important conversations and for anyone who is new to politics, interested in running for office or even those who have years of experience under your belt. I welcome the opportunity to work with individuals who want to see a representative democracy that is built for any and all people. 

Political Incumbency—It’s Complicated

Republished from Newsweek

Women at all levels of elected office are building political power and running successful campaigns across the country. But because men still dominate the halls of power, the benefit of incumbency works against women candidates and creates yet another barrier to gender parity in politics. 

In the United States, roughly 90 percent of incumbents can expect re-election, even when their constituents are dissatisfied with their performance, or partisan shifts would have otherwise put them at a disadvantage. That incumbency boost overwhelmingly benefits men, since men hold nearly a super majority of elected positions in the U.S. 

Women currently hold only 27.1 percent of seats in Congress, 31 percent in statewide elected office, 31.3 percent in state legislatures and 25.1 percent of mayoral offices in cities with populations over 30,000 people[RS1] . Consequently, men are still the most powerful legislating force. A system that inherently sustains men’s political power is not a system built to support competition nor designed to ensure that all communities are heard and represented.

We know that the deck is already stacked against women who do manage to make it into office. Women incumbents face different challenges than men when it comes to re-election. In a recent, groundbreaking report, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation found that voters do not assume a woman is doing a good job in office. As a result, women need to demonstrate their competency, show their accomplishments and connect to voters in order to win re-election—standards to which male incumbents often aren’t held. Similarly, ReflectUS recently released an issue brief [RS2] that demonstrated how women candidates are disadvantaged by the incumbency system—whether or not they are incumbents—due to the systemic challenges women face in our electoral system. 

An analysis of races for the U.S. House of Representatives found that women face more competition as incumbents than their male counterparts. In particular, the presence of women incumbents increases the likelihood that more individuals—women or men—will enter the race and challenge them. Because having women incumbents invites more challengers, women incumbents have to constantly fundraise to fend off challengers. This leaves less money to contribute to party caucuses and support other candidates in more competitive districts. An elected official constantly fighting for a seat has less time to govern. 

Women also have different career progression trajectories than men. Specifically, women are less likely to move from state legislatures to Congress due to many systemic disadvantages for women, like lack of access to dependent care, caregiving responsibilities and the low pay that comes with many part-time elected positions. Men, as incumbents, often do not need to consider these challenges to step up their political leadership from local levels to those with more responsibility. 

These challenges compound the existing double standards for women in politics. Barbara Lee Family Foundation research showed that women face a higher standard of likeability than men. Further, women are not often viewed as executive leaders. In fact, when study participants were asked if they preferred a man or woman governor, while most did not offer a propensity either way, those that did preferred a man. As incumbents, women must continue to work twice as hard to prove themselves to voters just as they must work twice as hard to prove themselves as first-time candidates. 

Incumbency is a tool of political power—one that protects the status quo. People who hold office longer are often more influential, have larger political networks and build substantial campaign funds which are used to support their political party and advance their agenda. Political parties benefit because incumbents in non-competitive districts cost less to re-elect than candidates running for the first time, yet incumbents still raise significantly more than challengers. This saves parties money for their competitive races. 

There are solutions to this problem. For instance, many states have sought to dismantle the power of incumbency by enforcing term limits and placing restrictions on campaign contributions. Congress has yet to establish term limits, meaning more men rise to power and hold their seats longer as they become fixtures in political spaces.  

Women incumbents can overcome the challenges they face. But the power of incumbency has real consequences for women, as first-time candidates or incumbents themselves. When working within a broken system designed to protect the status quo—men’s political power—it is important to be clear-eyed about the feedback loop of incumbency. If our nation ever expects to reflect a representative democracy, incumbent protection can no longer be the standard.

Tiffany Gardner is the CEO of ReflectUS. The ReflectUS Coalition accelerates and maximizes the collective impact of Coalition members, people, and organizations working to expand political leadership of, by, and for all women. Amanda Hunter is the Executive Director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. The Barbara Lee Family Foundation advances women’s equality and representation in American politics and in the field of contemporary art. Their work in both program areas is guided by a core belief that women’s voices strengthen democracy and enrich our culture.

Show Me Commitment to Women in Political Leadership

Republished from The Missouri Times

Missouri women have recently gained traction in political representation, but these advances have still left Missouri women far from equal representation. In fact, over the past 20 years, Missouri women have accounted for only 20 percent of elected positions even though they represent 51 percent of the population. Missouri women deserve a far greater voice in the policymaking that impacts their lives, particularly at the local level. 

Research demonstrates that Missouri women are poorly represented in larger municipal governments, and data show that when accounting for smaller local governments, women’s representation is even more bleak. When considering Black, Indigenous, and Latina women, there are even fewer. There is a significant opportunity to improve these numbers — especially at local government level — through local board and commission appointments. It is more important than ever to include women in political leadership for true representation. 

Women account for only 17 percent of elected local and municipal government seats across Missouri. For local appointed boards and commissions, where information is available, women only account for 22 percent of available seats while representing 51 percent of the population. With respect to particular bodies, women account for 15 percent of board of adjustment seats and 19 percent of planning and zoning boards. These appointed boards address fundamental issues within communities, including infrastructure, land use, and public safety. Local boards make recommendations to elected officials based on their research and can draft regulations for the municipality to consider. The exact powers of the boards and commissions depend on your locality, but these are meaningful bodies that have a significant role in our communities. The lack of women serving means that key voices are missing from important decisions that affect all of us. 

Thankfully, several organizations across Missouri are working with women seeking political leadership opportunities. For example, Missouri M.A.D.E. and WEPOWER collaborate with women’s interest groups to promote opportunities and provide development for those seeking political leadership. Through the national organization ReflectUS, these organizations are able to coalesce their resources to connect with a significant number of women from all parts of Missouri. To date, they have trained hundreds of Missouri women who are ready and willing to take on political leadership roles. Now, local governments need to take action to increase the number of women serving on local boards and commissions.

Many boards and commissions have standards regarding the qualifications of who can serve. Appointees may have to be licensed professionals in a particular field or work in a certain industry to be appointed. Some have political party requirements, like the Missouri Conservation Commission, which allows no more than two members from the same political party to serve. In some cases, there are geographic requirements for serving on boards and commissions, such as requiring at least one person from each congressional district to be appointed. These requirements are striving for the same kinds of outcomes that we propose. Diversity — whether professional, ideological, racial, geographical, or otherwise — has long been recognized as valuable to including the voices of those who may not often be considered in decision-making. In this case, women are no different. Every local board and commission affect women’s daily lives, from public works and parks to infrastructure and zoning. Women deserve a say in how these decisions are made. 

Women who are seeking elected leadership and appointments are qualified for these positions. Localities need to intentionally recruit women because it benefits the entire board or commission, and therefore, the community. When women are present in diverse, mixed-gender professional settings, there is higher creativity, more innovative solutions, and better outcomes which is better for democracy and all of us. 

Now is the time to make sure all Missourians are included, and we can start with local governments intentionally increasing the number of women serving on local boards and commissions. This will ensure that more women are recruited into the applicant pool and allow local governments to reach diverse women in the community who want to give back through public service. One of the first and easiest steps is for local governments to recruit diverse women in the community who want to give back through some form of public service. 

Representative democracy is important because laws are being made that affect every person, not just those in the most populous places. It is past time to recognize that women belong at all decision-making tables and that there are qualified women waiting to serve on local boards and commissions. Missouri can be a leader in democracy, but we have to take women’s representation seriously and prioritize women’s political leadership. 

Allison Gibbs is the director of Leadership Development and Special Projects at WEPOWER St. Louis and leads the Chisholm’s Chair fellowship program for Black and Latinx women interested in political leadership. Amanda Morrison is the founder and executive director of Missouri M.A.D.E., a non-partisan organization committed to identifying, recruiting, and training Missouri women to run for political office. Amanda Pohl is the programs director of ReflectUS, which accelerates and maximizes the collective impact of coalition members, people, and organizations working to expand political leadership of, by, and for all women.

Representative Democracy Requires Inclusion of All Abilities

Republished from Ms. Magazine

Last month we celebrated Disability Pride—a time to honor difference, raise awareness and promote visibility for disabled Americans. The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) was passed in July 1990, providing legal avenues for access to spaces and opportunities for those with disabilities. Yet 31 years after this historic law was passed, American women with disabilities continue to fight for an equal voice and opportunities for representation. 

According to recent research, in 26 states, there is no known disabled person elected at the local, state or national level. More concerning, women with disabilities are elected in only 15 states. In fact, disabled women represent only 2.9 percent of all elected officials, while 16.1 percent of U.S. women are disabled. As organizations and leaders advocate to increase women’s political leadership, it is imperative that we include women from diverse backgrounds and experiences in this work. Our government and society need women with different lived experiences to be active members of decision-making bodies.

The ReflectUS Coalition and its members have been working towards this goal for various communities of women, including disabled women. Recently, ReflectUS Coalition members RepresentWomen and She Should Run have worked directly on this important issue through research and training opportunities.

ReflectUS Coalition member RepresentWomen recently released a report, “Intersectional Disempowerment: Exploring Barriers for Disabled Female Political Candidates in the United States.” In this report, they found that disabled women continue to be underrepresented in political leadership. Among disabled elected officials, 8.3 percent are women, while 11.4 percent are men. This means that when people from the disabled community are elected, they are more often men. Consequently, the intersectional barriers of being a disabled woman are often underrepresented. 

In order to increase disabled women’s political leadership, RepresentWomen found that there are three areas where work needs to be focused:

  1. addressing accessibility barriers, 
  2. addressing attitude barriers, and 
  3. addressing institutional barriers.

With regard to accessibility, RepresentWomen found that by addressing accessibility barriers, the resulting public policy that develops not only becomes more accessible for those with disabilities, but also increases accessibility for others who may not experience the disability. For instance, the RepresentWomen report discusses curb cutouts for wheelchairs. When curb cutouts were installed for those with physical disabilities, it increased access to sidewalks for everyone like parents pushing strollers, bicyclists and people who have difficulty with steps. Previously, people would adapt to the limitations of public sidewalk design, but curb cutouts provided enduring accessibility  for the entire community. The success of the curb cutout policy also assisted in changing the public’s attitude around issues impacting disabled community members.

Regarding attitude barriers, the report highlights the importance of continuing to confront the social stigmas associated with being a disabled woman candidate. When women face questions about their qualifications due to their disability status, these questions cause harm and must be addressed. Political party leaders need to directly challenge these stereotypes and make it clear that ableism will not be tolerated in campaigns. Working to dismantle ableism will take time and intentional focus.

With respect to institutional barriers, the ReflectUS Coalition recognizes the power appointments have in addressing gender imbalances in political leadership. For instance, intentional appointments of women with disabilities will increase their political leadership. As the RepresentWomen report highlights, executive administrations and local governments responsible for appointments must make a commitment to inclusive representation. Political parties can reduce gatekeeping by openly recruiting more disabled women to run for office, working with disabled peoples’ organizations, and securing funds for disabled women candidates.

In addition to research and reporting, ReflectUS Coalition member She Should Run has been advocating for disabled women in a number of ways. In particular, they have been working to ensure campaigns are accessible to disabled community members. They have partnered with National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) to further this work. 

In a published blog, She Should Run and NCIL discussed the importance of candidates connecting with local disability communities. They stressed the expertise of disabled people and the need to involve more disabled people in all campaigns. She Should Run recently provided training with NCIL to discuss how ableism is keeping the U.S. from equal representation. 

Additionally, She Should Run is working around:

  1. advocacy for centering disabled women as experts in the field, 
  2. leadership development opportunities for candidates from a wide range of disability statuses, and 
  3. partnerships with organizations that provide specific resources for disabled candidates—all towards the goal of empowering disabled women in political leadership.

When disabled women are at decision-making tables, they give voice to the importance of access for all people. As the work of RepresentWomen and She Should Run illustrate, there are solutions to the challenges facing disabled women and their political leadership. 

In a society based on the principle of representative democracy, our institutions must be accommodating of all communities in order to truly be reflective of the citizenry. Hence, when disabled women are present to confront the barriers they face, change is not only possible, but inevitable.

“In Government, Women Continue To Be a Minority”: The Path for Women in Politics is Paved With Different Stones

Republished from Ms. Magazine

In spite of the gains women have made in the past several years, we are still subject to increased scrutiny from the media, can face sexist silencing by colleagues, and often must fight to break into established political networks in order to have an impact on the political agenda.

This struggle for women in politics is outlined in detail in the new ReflectUS (a coalition of which my organization Ignite is a member) issue brief, Ensuring Success: What Happens After Women Win. This brief affirms that for women in elected leadership, the path we travel is paved with different, often more difficult stones than for our male counterparts. As the only woman serving on the elected Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority, I know that my journey is different from that of my male colleagues.

Women know we have to be experts to accomplish our goals. We also know that we are going to face sexism wherever we are—in a study published in 2020, it was found that 90 percent of people globally hold some sort of bias against women. The same study found that 39 percent of people in the U.S. believe men to be better leaders than women. Yet the research also demonstrates that women are becoming more educated, have gained a larger share of the workforce, and are increasingly becoming the breadwinner in families.

With the increased educational and economic advancement of women—while certainly not equal to men—there also comes the desire for increased political leadership. Yet, in the political world, women are often newcomers to their seats. In fact, men account for more than two-thirds of elected officials at the federal, state and larger locality levels, making the presence of more women a newer phenomenon that is often seen as an exception rather than the rule. Women are more than half the U.S. population and have never held more than one-third of elected offices at any given time at any level.

To date, only one woman has ever led the U.S. House of Representatives—Speaker Nancy Pelosi—and only one woman has served as the president of the U.S. Senate—Vice President Kamala Harris. Subsequently, 2021 was the first year in which the U.S. president has ever been flanked by two women on the dais in a joint address to Congress. It took 232 years since Congress was founded, 105 years after the first woman was elected to Congress, and 101 years after the 19th Amendment was ratified to get to this point.

Enough is enough.

Let’s hope that this issue brief sparks an important conversation around both how we attract more women to run for office, and just as importantly, how we ensure their equal treatment once serving in political leadership.

Shay Franco-Clausen is ReflectUS Coalition member IGNITE’s West Coast region program director and serves the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority. She is also the director of gender and equity for the Santa Clara County Democratic Central Committee and an adult advisor for California High School Democrats. She is a mother of five children with her wife, loves to hike, surf and is a Bay Area DJ. ReflectUS is a national, nonpartisan coalition working to increase the number of women in office and achieve equal representation across the racial, ideological, ethnic and geographic spectrum.