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State senator reviews influence of women leaders

Women leaders help shape the world at home and abroad, Washington State Senate majority leader Lisa Brown recently told a gathering of the United Nations Association.

Lisa Brown

Lisa Brown

She reflected on the number of women leaders worldwide, barriers women face, actions of women in power and the role of grassroots organizations.

For 20 years, Lisa taught economics and women’s studies at Eastern Washington University.  She now teaches organizational leadership at Gonzaga University.  Since 1992, when she was first elected as a representative to the Washington State House from the third district in Spokane, she has taught part time.  She was recently re-elected as senator.

“Perhaps there are more women in politics in Washington because we have a part-time, low-paid citizen legislature,” she noted.

Among the states, Washington has the highest percentage of women in elected offices—14 percent, she said, and 42 percent of the members of the State Senate are women. 

Lisa entered state politics out of her involvement in education and grassroots organizations, like the Central America Solidarity Association.  Faculty colleagues, grassroots groups and local women in politics encouraged her to run in 1991.  Friends and family have helped her, by providing emotional and material support and by helping take care of her house, car, yard and son.

“I maintain connections with the grassroots organizations that support me.  I appreciate the role activist groups play in defining issues,” said Lisa, who helps groups understand what is possible and makes sure their views—along with views of other citizen advocates—are represented.

After undergraduate work at the University of Illinois and graduate studies in economics at the University of Colorado in Boulder, she came to Spokane to visit friends involved in grassroots political and environmental groups, and decided to stay.

“I’m clear that my Catholic upbringing played a major part in my interest in politics.  I was inspired by the Catholic doctrine about God’s option for the poor.  That led to my involvement with issues in Central America,” said Lisa, who is now involved in the Unitarian Universalist Church, which shares those emphases.

“Everyone who pays taxes is entitled to an equal share,” she quoted from a 1851 Declaration of Women’s Rights, opening her reflections on the involvement of women in politics.

Percentage of women still low
Statistics about the involvement of women came from the Center for Women and Politics at Rutgers:

• About 95 percent of countries have granted women the right to vote and hold office.

• About 12 percent of those in parliaments are women: 35 percent in Scandinavian countries, 11 percent in Europe, 11 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 10 percent in Asia and 3.4 percent in Arab countries. 

• In 14 countries, women are more than 30 percent of those in parliaments. 
• Sweden, Norway, Iceland, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark have women heading their parliaments.

• There are 17 women heads of state.

• Women’s organizations that fought apartheid in South Africa petitioned, rallied and won a ruling guaranteeing that 30 percent of the seats in the parliament would be for women.

• Argentina’s parliament has a law against quotas, but all parties elect women, so they are 30 percent. 

• About 95 percent of women in Norway, which has a woman president, took a day off for a mass demonstration to show the role of women there.
• In France, women from 10 parties, ranging from the left to the right, wrote a manifesto saying women should have more elected offices.  Now women are 25 to 45 percent of city councils.

“The United States ranks 60th with women making up 14 percent of those in Congress.  There are 24 women governors.  Governor Locke is the first Asian American governor,” Lisa said.  “Our elected officials are not as representative of the women and people of color in our society as in other countries.

“Since 1776, there have been 12,000 people in Congress.  Only 1.8 percent of them have been women.  Today, there is just one woman of color in Congress, Evelyn Holmes Norton.”

Barriers discourage women
“Rules of the game affect the role of women,” Lisa said.  “So does party politics.”

For example, the U.S. electoral system with the majority winner taking all of a state’s electoral votes is one barrier.

One reason Washington has more women is that political parties are weaker, she said. 

Lisa first won a seat in the legislature with no party support.  Later, with party support, she won every precinct.

Another barrier is how society views the division of labor for men and women. Alfred Lord Tennyson said in the 1800s that men were for the field and sword, and women were for the hearth and needle.  In his view, men were to command and women were to obey.

Such a division of labor places men in the public realm and women in the private realm,” she said.  “Combine that with the demands of a political career, and it’s hard for women with children.  Most women enter politics after their children are grown.”

Gender expectations influence how masculine and feminine traits translate into leadership and public office.

“Increasingly men are showing their softer side,” she observed, “but it’s still easier for a manly man to be elected than a girly girl.  Women need to be another Joan of Arc or Mother Teresa to be elected.

“In office, women walk a tightrope.  They cannot go ‘too far’ or they face problems,” she said.

Beyond the gender expectations, there are barriers of dealing with media emphases and generating popular appeal.  Media usually cover personal characteristics of women—hair, hemlines and husbands—but Lisa finds more women journalists cover personal characteristics of both men and women.  Men journalists tend to think more of men, she said.

For example, the Washington Times referred to Nancy Pelosi in a headline in the 1990s as the “Democrats’ new prom queen,” Lisa said.
Does gender influence power?

Reflecting on whether women change power structures or power changes women in office, Lisa suggests asking the same of men:  “Does a person’s gender change power structures, or does power change a person of either gender?”

Women tend to have a more collaborative style,” she noted.

Lisa also clarified that “women’s issues” are not just about equality, but also about children, education, health care, medical leave, child support enforcement and the full range of other issues.

A 1995 University of Florida study on policy issues found that men linked with women’s grassroots advocacy organizations were more likely to support women’s policy issues.

We need grassroots organizations to hold women and men accountable,” Lisa said.

“Women tend to make policy changes that make institutions more family friendly,” she added.

According to the United Nations, women lead in conflict resolution and in promoting peace and security.  They look to the impact of armed conflict on women and girls, for equal representation of women in peacekeeping forces and an increased role of women in non-governmental organizations.
“We need to understand that what we do in Spokane is international.  The United Nations Association is important for promoting international rights for women,” she said.

Knowing that the United States is the only industrialized country that has not ratified the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Lisa has worked for two years to have the Washington State Legislature consider legislation asking Congress to ratify the treaty.

“The most important thing we can do worldwide is to educate women
.  With education, birth rates and infant death rates decline and the Gross Domestic Product rises.  We need to support education worldwide,” she said.
No reason for complacency

While women may be in top leadership roles in Washington state, Lisa finds no reason for complacency. 

“Legislators, including women, can be overwhelmed by the money interests,” she said, adding that most lobbyists are men.

Lisa also said that it is often hard for legislators to hear the voices of the faith community among the lobbyists.

Some legislators readily listen to the faith community because they share their values,” she added.

Advocates for low-income people, environmental protection and women’s issues, organized by the Children’s Alliance and faith groups, continue to “chip away on important social issues, connecting political leaders with grassroots organizations,” she said.

“Grassroots organizations can keep politicians accountable,” said Lisa.

Committed to reaching out to children and youth to empower them to enter politics, Lisa often visits schools in her district—where 50 percent of children are on free or reduced-cost lunches—to hear their concerns, to inspire them to continue their education and to encourage them to consider public service.

For information, call 360-786-1999.

By Mary Stamp, Fig Tree editor - Copyright © March 2005