Women of the 116th Congress
Women of the 116th Congress: A photo of female members of Congress, taken by Representative Terri Sewell

Down a cor­ri­dor in the U.S. Capi­tol, near the office of House Major­i­ty Whip, stands the stat­ue of a deter­mined-look­ing woman bear­ing a sheaf of papers.

She was a pio­neer in the cor­ri­dors of pow­er and advo­cate of peace.

Jeannette Pickering Rankin
Jean­nette Pick­er­ing Rankin (1880–1973), a mem­ber of the Unit­ed States House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives who was elect­ed in 1916 as the first woman to serve in the U.S. Con­gress. Glass neg­a­tive 5 x 7 in. or smaller.

Unit­ed States Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Jeanette Rankin of Mon­tana was the first woman elect­ed to fed­er­al office and the only mem­ber of Con­gress to vote against U.S. entry into both World Wars I and II.

She would live long enough to come to Seat­tle for a Viet­nam War protest.

She was, nat­u­ral­ly, a North­west­ern­er. Our cor­ner of Amer­i­ca has put more women in high office, and ear­li­er, than any­place else in the country.

Speak­ing of the cor­ri­dors of pow­er, Sen­a­tor Pat­ty Mur­ray-D-Wash­ing­ton, for­mer preschool teacher from Shore­line, is the new­ly mint­ed chair of the Sen­ate Appro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee and Pres­i­dent Pro Tem­pore of the U.S. Senate.

Map­ping the his­to­ry and rise of women in our region’s pol­i­tics is a fas­ci­nat­ing enter­prise, full of very dif­fer­ent back­grounds, beliefs, char­ac­ters and contributions.

As this is writ­ten, Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Prami­la Jaya­pal of Seat­tle, is a pan­elist on a CNN Sun­day talk show, in her role as chair of the one hun­dred mem­ber Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Caucus.

A col­league, Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Suzan Del­Bene, has just fin­ished a term chair­ing the cen­ter-left New Democ­rats, and has been giv­en the cov­et­ed post as head of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Committee.

The far right has been rep­re­sent­ed by such folk as the late Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Helen Chenoweth, R‑Idaho, who sug­gest­ed we pay for nation­al parks by allow­ing hunt­ing, and could not under­stand why fish runs were con­sid­ered endan­gered when she could by canned salmon in any supermarket.

Two-term Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Lin­da Smith, R‑Washington, came out of Phyl­lis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, and lost to Mur­ray in the state’s first Sen­ate con­test to fea­ture a square-off between two women, in the 1998 midterms.

As long ago as 1962, the region was rep­re­sent­ed in the House four women of very dif­fer­ent temperament.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Edith Green, D‑Oregon, a prick­ly for­mer school­teacher, cham­pi­oned fed­er­al aid to edu­ca­tion and head­ed state pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns of John and Robert Kennedy.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Gra­cie Pfost, D‑Idaho, was nick­named “Hell’s Belle” for cham­pi­oning a (nev­er built) high dam in Hells Canyon on the Snake River.

Two “gen­tle ladies” from Wash­ing­ton, Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Julia But­ler Hansen and Repub­li­can Cather­ine May, joined across par­ty lines as ear­ly advo­cates of pro­hi­bi­tion against sex-based discrimination.

Hansen would become chair of the Inte­ri­or sub­com­mit­tee of the House Appro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee, and boss of fed­er­al spend­ing on pub­lic lands. She was bud­dies with House Speak­er Carl Albert, anoth­er source of power.

Why the North­west? We’re a region set­tled large­ly by peo­ple who left behind ingrown tra­di­tions from else­where. Senior­i­ty-cen­tered polit­i­cal machines have nev­er flour­ished in the Fourth Cor­ner. Hence, there were no patron­age bar­ri­ers, and wait-your-turn argu­ments did not res­onate. Mur­ray was elect­ed to the U.S. Sen­ate after less than a term in the Wash­ing­ton State Senate.

There were only sev­en­teen women in the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives when Ore­gon vot­ers sent Edith Green there in 1954.

Today, there are one hun­dred and twen­ty-four women, pri­mar­i­ly Democrats.

Ser­vice in a man’s Con­gress some­times required stubbornness.

Edith Green
Con­gres­sion­al por­trait of Edith Louise Star­rett Green (Jan­u­ary 17, 1910 – April 21, 1987)

Women had to fight for access to the Senate’s mem­bers-only swim­ming pool and gym and to get their own work­out room. The guys had enjoyed splash­ing around in their birth­day suits.

On the pol­i­cy side, Edith Green tried to include gen­der non-dis­crim­i­na­tion lan­guage in the 1964 Civ­il Rights Act. She was laughed at, but had the last laugh eight years lat­er with pas­sage of the Equal Pay Act and Title IX, which opened col­lege ath­let­ics to women. Courage was required when Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Jolene Unsoeld, D‑Washington, rep­re­sent­ing tim­ber towns of South­west Wash­ing­ton, refused to dem­a­gogue against courts’ deci­sions on pre­serv­ing old growth forests. She right­ly blamed log exports for plun­der­ing forests.

Pat­ty Murray’s ini­tial cause in Con­gress was get­ting more fed­er­al research mon­ey for dis­eases that impact women, her first Sen­ate floor speech talk­ing about ovar­i­an can­cer and friends who had died from it.

She was ini­tial spon­sor of the 1994 Vio­lence Against Women Act and has fought for twen­ty-eight years to strength­en it.

The Sen­ate now has twen­ty women sen­a­tors, who break bread togeth­er even though Sen­a­tor Mar­sha Black­burn, R‑Tennessee, blabs to right-wing media what gets dis­cussed. It was a lot lone­li­er when Pat­ty Mur­ray and Sen­a­tors Diane Fein­stein and Bar­bara Box­er, D‑California, were elect­ed in 1992. Elder­ly Sen­a­tor Strom Thur­mond of South Car­oli­na behaved inap­pro­pri­ate­ly toward Mur­ray in a Sen­a­tors-only ele­va­tor, not rec­og­niz­ing that she was a colleague.

On the flip side, it’s women who nowa­days demon­strate adult behav­ior and cross-the-aisles col­le­gial­i­ty in today’s polar­ized Congress.

A clas­sic exam­ple: Sen­a­tors Maria Cantwell, D‑Washington, and Lisa Murkows­ki, R‑Alaska, who after the 2014 elec­tion found them­selves the rank­ing Demo­c­rat and Repub­li­can chair of the Sen­ate Ener­gy and Nat­ur­al Resources Committee.

The two “gen­tle ladies” opposed each oth­er on open­ing the Arc­tic Refuge to oil drilling – Murkows­ki for, Cantwell against – but made com­mon cause in suc­cess­ful­ly push­ing for con­struc­tion of new U.S. polar icebreakers.

They appeared togeth­er in Seat­tle not long ago, cel­e­brat­ing the des­ig­na­tion of “nation­al” sta­tus for the Nordic Nation­al Mar­itime Museum.

One more lin­ger­ing obsta­cle, lack of mon­ey. Democ­rats took back the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in 2006, but with much grum­bling that Cam­paign Com­mit­tee chair Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Rahm Emanuel had few women on his “A” list of House chal­lengers. Three months ago, Marie Glue­senkamp-Perez, D‑Washington, scored the nation’s biggest House upset with­out receiv­ing a dime from the DCCC. The next cycle promis­es to be dif­fer­ent with Del­Bene head­ing the DCCC.

The 2024 elec­tion will go down in “her-sto­ry” in the Northwest.

A Demo­c­rat, Tina Kotek, was elect­ed Gov­er­nor of Ore­gon, pre­vail­ing in a con­test of three women to suc­ceed anoth­er woman, Gov­er­nor Kate Brown. Kotek is the third woman to serve as Oregon’s gov­er­nor in the past thir­ty years. The state elect­ed a record four women to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Representative Marie Gluesenkamp Perez
Offi­cial con­gres­sion­al por­trait of Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Marie Glue­senkamp Perez

Two women, Glue­senkamp-Perez in Wash­ing­ton and Rep. Mary Pel­tosa, D‑Alaska, flipped House seats pre­vi­ous­ly held by Repub­li­cans. The Ever­green State now has eight women in its twelve-per­son con­gres­sion­al delegation.

Pressed by Trump-endorsed oppo­nents, Sen­a­tors Mur­ray in Wash­ing­ton and Murkows­ki in Alas­ka both won reelection.

Once, long ago, one of the few paths to pub­lic office for women was to suc­ceed a deceased spouse or hus­band. Sen­a­tor Mau­reen Neu­berg­er, D‑Oregon was an exam­ple, in 1960 win­ning the seat held by her late hus­band Sen­a­tor Richard Neu­berg­er. (She won using a slo­gan, “Join the Mau­reen Corps.”)

As recent­ly, Sen. Bar­bara Mikul­s­ki, D‑Maryland, became the first female sen­a­tor elect­ed with no spousal or fam­i­ly bond.

Jeanette Rankin made it into Con­gress on her own – she was a women’s suf­frage advo­cate – but found the House a lone­ly home.

No more. How long will it be until a woman’s place is in that oth­er house down Penn­syl­va­nia Avenue – the White House?

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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