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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. 

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