OLYMPIA, Wash. – In Washington politics, women rule. Never before has a state had a woman in the governor's mansion and both U.S. Senate seats. Also, all of the state Senate's leadership positions are held by women.
This is a state where female politicians' voices are clearly heard.
"The barriers and the hang-ups just aren't there," said state Sen. Margarita Prentice, a Seattle Democrat and the Senate's new budget chairwoman. In Washington politics, "we've always said that the edge is for the woman."
And the numbers have backed that up for more than a decade. Beginning in 1993, the state had the highest percentage of women legislators in the country, though after the November elections their share dropped from 40 percent to 33.3 percent.
Maryland has become the new leader, followed by Delaware, and Washington fell into a third-place tie with Arizona, Nevada and Vermont, according to Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics (search) at Rutgers University.
But even while losing numbers, women in the Evergreen State increased their power in the state Senate, holding all five leadership positions, including that of majority leader. And Democrat Christine Gregoire (search) was elected governor after three counts in an excruciatingly close contest that is still being fought in the courts.
"Little girls can look in the newspaper and see a picture of what the governor looks like, what a United States senator looks like," Walsh said. "It looks like them."
Washington women charged onto the scene in 1992, joining other women nationally in what came to be called the "Year of the Woman" - when the number of women in Congress jumped from 28 to 42. Murray was elected, Gregoire became the state's first female attorney general, and Republican Jennifer Dunn went to Congress.
"Washingtonians dislike the classical, old-style, heavily partisan" leadership style, said state Senate Minority Leader Bill Finkbeiner, a Republican. "In the early '90s, women began to be seen as an alternative to that."
Walsh said the populist culture in the state has created a political system that "lets all people in."
State Sen. Lisa Brown (search), who became Senate majority leader this year, said she thinks the frontier past of the state plays a part in the can-do mentality of women here.
"Women were pretty used to doing whatever they had to do. ... They hunted, they fished, they got involved," Brown said. "I think it was a natural outgrowth to run for office."
Gregoire, who last week delivered the Democrats' response to President Bush's first weekly address since he was inaugurated, said that during her run for attorney general, she encountered the attitude on the campaign trial that "that's a man's job."
"The question always to me was: Can you be tough enough to be attorney general?" she said.
But in her run for governor last year, Gregoire said, no one ever questioned whether she could do the job because she was a woman.
"In 2004 there was not a uniqueness," she said. "In terms of going out on the campaign trail, gender wasn't an issue."