Local ‘Year of the Woman’ could build stronger communities

At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was so different about the city council meeting I was watching on video. The discussion — about budgets and funding new staff positions — was similar to the hundreds of council meetings I’d watched in my 20-plus years as a community news reporter. But there was just something … off.

And then it hit me: This was the first time I’d watched a council meeting dominated by women. There was newly appointed mayor Shannon Turk, finding her way as she led the council through a complicated process of public hearings on the city’s biennial budget. To her right, Camas native and longtime City Councilwoman Melissa Smith contributed her usual common-sense comments. To the mayor’s left, two more women — attorney Deanna Rusch and Bonnie Carter, an active school district volunteer — talked about their constituents’ concerns and made motions to move the meeting along in an orderly fashion.

Having been raised in a family dominated by grandmothers, mothers and aunts, watching women take over was nothing new, but the fact that this was the first time I’d seen it happening in local government startled me. It’s nearly 2019. Are female-majority city councils still that unusual?

Locally, the answer is no. Camas, along with its neighbors to the east and west, Washougal and Vancouver, all have female mayors right now. The ratio of female-to-male councilors in all three cities is either equal or slightly skewed to the female side. And all three of our national representatives in Clark County — Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler and Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell — are female.

But when you look on a macro level, the picture on women’s progress in politics doesn’t seem quite so rosy.

For every woman in political office in this country, there are still three men in similar positions. The Senate has more women than ever before, but hasn’t yet hit 25 percent. In the House, congressmen outnumber congresswomen more than fivefold. At a state level, only 12 percent of states have female governors and just 25 percent of state legislature seats are filled by women. On a local level, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, of the 1,365 mayors leading cities with at least 30,000 residents, only 22 percent are women.

Some cities (we’re looking at you, Boston) have never elected a female mayor. In Vancouver, Anne McEnerny-Ogle is the first woman to serve as mayor. In Camas and Washougal, Turk and Molly Coston are the second women to serve in that position. Even progressive Portland has only had three female mayors, and hasn’t been represented by a woman since Vera Katz left office in 2004.

Women have never had an easy time breaking through the political “old boys network” in this country. Even the general election of 1992, dubbed “The Year of the Woman,” only increased the number of women in the U.S. Senate by four — from two to six. Then President George H.W. Bush said of the 1992 election: “This is supposed to be ‘The Year of the Woman’ in the Senate. Let’s see how they do. I hope a lot of them lose.” One of the four women elected to the Senate that year was Sen. Patty Murray, who said she decided to run after watching Anita Hill bare her soul at Clarence Thomas’ 1991 Supreme Court nomination in front of an all-male panel of senators.

Although all levels of government are still grossly underrepresented by women, particularly by women of color, we all benefit when we vote women into office.

Research shows the inclusion of women in government leads to policies that prioritize healthy families, help lift people out of poverty and emphasize greater equity for women and racial minorities. Female legislators also are, according to a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Political Science, more effective than male legislators at securing money for their home districts. In fact, the study showed districts with female representatives get about $50 million a year more than districts represented by male legislators.

As Madeleine Albright, our country’s first female Secretary of State, once noted: women leaders “can be counted on to raise issues that others overlook, to support ideas that others oppose and to seek an end to abuses that others accept.”

I hope Albright’s sentiment holds true on a local level, and look forward to covering these more gender-balanced councils to see if the newly elected, appointed and incumbent female politicians will use their positions of power to work together and build stronger, more equitable communities.

~ Kelly Moyer, managing editor

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