Time for women to lean in for parity in public office

Washington has long been a leader in women’s equity. Women were given the right to vote here in 1910 – 10 years before the 19th Amendment’s ratification. In 1926, Seattle Mayor Bertha Knight Landes became the first woman to lead a major American city. Dixy Lee Ray became one of the nation’s first female governors.

More recently, in 2004, Washington became the first state to elect all women – Gov. Christine Gregoire and Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell – to the state’s top three offices.

None of this happened by accident.

The early work of suffragette leaders like Mary Brown of Olympia, Emma Smith DeVoe of Tacoma and May Hutton of Spokane founded this state’s women’s movement. As women’s rights expanded, so did the need for new advocacy efforts, including bringing more women’s voices to the table in government.

For 40 years, the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC) of Washington has worked to get more women involved in the political process by recruiting, training and electing women to office. After four decades of advocacy, there’s still work to do.

In the early 1990s Washington let the nation with more than 40 percent of seats in our state Legislature held by women. Today, that number is 30 percent.

One of the biggest challenges to gender parity in office is that women don’t run. According to a national study by the Center for American Women in Politics, women are much more likely to run if they’re recruited by others. Men don’t wait to be asked.

The NWPC of Washington recently conducted a survey of women to identify the barriers to entry for public office. Women need to know they have a strong community of support behind them. In our survey, women said having a strong network of allies ready to help was the most important part of their decision to run.

And this is where we can make a difference – women helping other women. We need to be able to unite behind women candidates and create a level playing field for elections. According to research from the Barbara Lee Foundation, voters – including women voters – have a higher standard for what they’ll consider a “qualified” woman candidate.

We need to be aware of how we as women can inadvertently undercut one another by buying into arguments that men are more qualified, better fundraisers or better negotiators. We can help one another play up our strengths.

As women, we need to commit to supporting women candidates with our financial donations, with our growing influence and networks and, most importantly, with our vote.

This November, the NWPC has endorsed more than 60 women candidates in local elections. Women in Washington are leaning in and running for office. Now it’s our turn to lean in and elect them.

Linda Mitchell is the current president of the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC) of Washington. Melissa Thompson Alexander is a past president and co-founder of the organization.