Some of Washington state’s most influential women gathered at Washougal’s newly opened Black Pearl event center this week for the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce’s popular Women in Leadership Lecture Series.
The 2018 lecture series’ final event, held Tuesday, Oct. 30, featured United States Sen. Patty Murray, the highest-ranking woman in the Senate; Washington state Sen. Annette Cleveland, the first woman elected to serve the state’s 49th district; and former Camas mayor Nan Henriksen, the first and only woman to serve in that position.
More than 100 women gathered inside the sunlit Black Pearl, which overlooks the Columbia River near Washougal Waterfront Park, to hear the female political leaders speak at the sold-out event.
Lee Rafferty, the former executive director of the Vancouver Downtown Association and winner of the 2017 John S. McKibbin Leadership Legacy Award, hosted the lecture and asked Murray, Cleveland and Henriksen questions about being a woman in local, state and federal government.
The senator said she had her first political victory in the 1980s, when her now-grown children were still in preschool.
“I never, ever expected to be a politician,” Murray said.
Upon discovering that Washington state legislators had cut funding for preschool cooperatives, Murray bundled her young children, ages 1 and 3, into her car and headed to Olympia to speak to politicians who could reverse this decision. She had never been to the state’s capital, had never confronted a politician. Pointed in the direction of a state leader who knew about the preschool issue, Murray asked for the man’s help. Instead of helping, the politician told the young mother she would never be able to change the system because she was “just a mom in tennis shoes.”
Determined to prove him wrong, Murray went home and talked to her preschool cooperative parent friends. That small group of “moms in tennis shoes” formed a grassroots group of about 13,000 parents across Washington state and turned the funding decision around.
Later, when Murray was running for U.S. Senate in 1992 against a veteran Congressman, this same network of parent friends helped her raise money and support and turned a longshot into a win.
“I was not expected to win,” Murray said of her 1992 victory. “We stunned the political class in this state and pretty much every man, including the man I was running against.”
Murray also told the women at the lecture series about what it was like at the recent Senate hearings for United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused by Christine Blasey Ford, a psychology professor at Palo Alto University and research psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, of sexually assaulting her at a party in the 1980s.
Murray said the process took her back to the early ’90s nomination hearings for Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, who was accused by law professor Anita Hill of sexually harassing her when she worked for him at the Department of Education.
“With Clarence Thomas, our country sent the message to women: just be quiet, don’t say anything,” Murray said. “With the Kavanaugh hearing, we had a woman who came forward with an extremely credible story … her story was so credible and believable, but I was frightened she would not be taken seriously, that the benefit of doubt would not be on her side, that people would dismiss it and that it would be glossed over.”
Murray said she feared the country’s leaders would “once again” be sending a message to women, “that they should not speak up, speak out and protect themselves, their daughters and their families.”
In fact, she said, she fears the end result of the Kavanaugh hearings, which resulted in Trump’s nominee getting a lifetime appointment on the U.S. Supreme Court, may send that message to women yet again.
However, Murray said, she did see a difference between the Thomas and Kavanaugh hearings — in 1991 Anita Hill faced an all-male Senate committee. With Kavanaugh, there were at least a few female senators to ask questions and listen to Blasey Ford’s testimony. “Even though the consequence wasn’t what I thought should happen,” Murray said. “They are there and they are speaking up and saying to women: do not stop talking, and we’ve got to fix this problem.”
Henriksen and Cleveland also stressed the idea of women lifting each other up to make a difference.
“Whether you’re 9 years old or 49 years old … if you see something that could be better, don’t just sit and gripe,” Henriksen told the crowd at the Black Pearl. “You get as many people as you can, and you go out and make it better.”