Washington state has long been a pacesetter in women's political leadership. It started in 1977, when voters put one of the first women into the statehouse by electing Dixy Lee Ray as their governor. The state has consistently led the nation in numbers of women in the Legislature and when Maria Cantwell joined Patty Murray in the U.S. Senate in 2000, it became one of only three states with two women senators.
Late last year, Washington voters made history again when they elected Christine Gregoire as governor. Now the three top political positions -- and clear pipelines to the U.S. presidency -- are in the hands of capable Washington women.
Lest we be lulled into thinking women are finally making it in politics, remember this: There are 49 other states and the vast majority are not even close to the same ratio. Why, then, do so many voters think women have made it? In fact, a recent survey shows this misperception is rampant, with more than half the electorate thinking the number of women in political office is steadily increasing. Not so.
Here's a statistical reality check: Washington's two women senators make up 15 percent of the total 14 women senators in Congress. If you add California and Maine, which are the only other states with two women senators, to the Washington total, you get six female senators, or almost half of the nation's total in just three states.
Women representatives are 13.8 percent of Congress yet we are demanding that Iraq and Afghanistan make their legislatures 25 percent female. We tout our democracy -- often insisting that other nations follow our model -- yet almost 60 countries have more women in political representation than we do.
In U.S. history, we have elected only 26 women governors. Before the 2004 election, we had nine sitting female governors; now we have only eight. Over the past decade, women's leadership in legislatures has hovered at 22 percent. Yet women are 51 percent of the population. We are clearly not moving forward; in truth, women are struggling to maintain the tenuous toehold they have.
This argument for more women in political leadership is not based strictly on equity. This is an argument based on survival. More than three decades of research conducted within state legislatures has proved that women make an enormous difference: They build consensus, bring new solutions and reach across boundaries to include more people in the political process.
When women and men lead side-by-side, it transforms and strengthens democracy; it allows women to put forward a different vision and allows men to act differently. Everyone gets more connected to the government -- legislators and people alike. And we've got to have it. How can we live in a country where more people voted for the "American Idol" than voted for Al Gore in 2000?
We cannot continue to let Washington state's top women leaders be an anomaly instead of a trend. We have to get over our collective shiver when a critical mass of women runs a town or a state or a country. Politics is a tough business. Yet, for women, the media and the public focus on their gender and not their agendas. It's their hair or their hemlines that make the news. It's no surprise then that voters wonder if these women are "man" enough for the job. In the end, we get the same old faces, most of whom are men, most whom never get challenged, with the same tired solutions to our problems. When women are in charge, we yell about a "feminized" government -- a female takeover in a system that has always been overwhelmingly male.
In the end, this is an argument to normalize a world in which men and women govern together, trading ideas and solutions, creating a world they can both accept. It's called democracy, and Washington is showing us how it's done. Let's give them company in other states.
Marie C. Wilson is president of The White House Project (www.thewhitehouseproject.org) and author of Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World (Viking/Penguin, 2004).