Where are the women in Clark County politics?

Eight female city councilors talk about the gender disparity, subtle sexism

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Connected story

Political veterans give their opinion.

In a state with two female senators and a female governor, and in a district that boasts a newly-minted female congresswoman, the figures just don’t seem to make sense: Of 52 seats on Clark County city councils and the board of county commissioners, just 10 are filled by women.

And while their gender is already underrepresented, the gap is growing: The 10 women serving in 2011 is nearly half the number of women serving five years ago.

Just one of nine area state legislators is a woman. None of the six county partisan officials — clerk, assessor, sheriff, prosecutor, auditor and treasurer — are women. (Lower-profile elected seats, like school boards, cemetery boards and port and public utility boards were not included in The Columbian’s analysis).

There are currently no female mayors — and the county’s two largest cities, Vancouver and Battle Ground, have never had one.

Where have all the women gone?

The Columbian put together a roundtable discussion with eight female elected officials earlier this month, which happens to be Women’s History Month, to tackle the topic of their dwindling numbers, and also what it means to be a member of the fairer sex in the often less-than-fair world of local politics.

At the E.B. Hamilton Hall at the Fort Vancouver National Site on March 3, the women — Vancouver City Councilors Jeanne Stewart and Jeanne Harris; Washougal Councilors Molly Coston and Jennifer McDaniel; Camas Councilor Linda Dietzman; La Center Councilors Linda Tracy and Kristine Carmona; and Woodland Councilor Marilee McCall (Camas Councilor Melissa Smith and Woodland Councilor Susan Humbyrd could not attend) — said it isn’t easy.

Their jobs are ostensibly part time, but they said elected office often requires a full-time commitment. Three of the women have full-time jobs, and three have children at home. Others have one or more part-time jobs.

Their discussion ranged from civility and the economy, to subtle sexism in their political lives.

And in the week following the talk, the women from the roundtable for the first time scheduled quarterly gatherings to talk about their rare positions as female elected officials.

Below is a snapshot of their conversation, which stretched to just over 90 minutes, with quotes edited for clarity and length.

How do you interpret the falling numbers of women in local politics?

Molly Coston: Until we have good civic discourse and good civic policy, you’ll see women in politics decline.

Jeanne Stewart: I see it a little differently. Most of the women I see in politics, they don’t shy away from discourse. I really wonder if economics, right now, doesn’t have something to do with the decline.

Women are still the primary child caregivers. I think as the financial path gets more questionable or narrows for people, to have a job, to have effective child care and take on the responsibility of an elected role, it adds a whole new element. I don’t think women aren’t interested; it’s just a huge responsibility.

Linda Dietzman: We get what I consider a stipend that goes toward paying for gasoline required to do this job. I consider this job to be a volunteer position. At this time, it really does take up a large time commitment.

Jennifer McDaniel:I have a 9-year-old and a 13-year-old at home. I juggle a lot of balls. I feel very blessed to have an amazing husband who can stand by me and catch some of those balls. But I’m doing it for my children and for every future generation.

Tell us about the campaign trail.

Stewart: It’s hard for women to run. It’s very stressful, very tense and very exhausting, and on top of all that, look how difficult it is for women to raise money.

Take the Vancouver City Council: I see men run for basic council seats that are raising $24,000, $35,000, $40,000. When Jeanne (Harris) and I run, we end up using our own money out of our own savings accounts to fund our own campaigns.

Very few people volunteer to give you money. You do not get the same respect that men get, and the proof of that is the money you can’t raise, no matter how long you have been around.

Dietzman: You have to really be committed. In small cities, you use your own money to campaign, and you’re not getting a lot back monetarily.

Linda Tracy:I was running unopposed in 2007. And they literally went out into the neighborhoods and grabbed somebody and put him on the ballot to run against me. But he got transferred, he moved, and he got canceled out from the ballot — he still got 200 votes at the election.

There were 200 people who decided to vote for the man, instead of me. You do get feelings like, no matter what, we’re not going to get the votes, we’re not going to get the money.

Marilee McCall:You don’t get to be who you are anymore — you are Vancouver, you are Woodland, you are La Center. You don’t get to go to the grocery store anymore without someone cornering you and wanting to know why you made a decision on something.

Dietzman: I’m debating very seriously about running again because of all this.

What is it like being a woman on your respective bodies?

McCall:If you are very knowledgeable, intelligent and driven, you are not seen very favorably. You’re not seen as a lady — you’re seen as a long list of very negative adjectives.

If you step back and do things in a collaborative manner, and you’re doing it quietly, you’re sometimes labeled as passive-aggressive or not effective.

And when all these things you’ve done start falling into place, someone else steps up and says: “Wasn’t that a great idea I had?” (Everyone laughs).

McDaniel: It’s usually a man.

Stewart: When it comes out of their mouths, it’s: “Oh my God! I’m a genius!” It’s like, wait a minute. Aren’t those the words that just came out of my mouth 10 minutes ago?

Frankly, I’ve been shocked, being a mature woman going into elected life. Not only have things not improved, they’re going backward. Women are not considered equal partners in society and in life.

All of Clark County’s city councils have a female minority. How do you relate to the men on your councils?

Jeanne Harris: I feel like I’m under a basketball net, swinging my elbows.

Stewart: Believe me, one or two changes can make a big difference in the dynamics.

Editor’s note: Stewart called the next day to further expand on this: “When Royce Pollard was mayor, I never had any sense as a woman as being not valued and not respected, even when he and I would go nose-to-nose and head-to-head over specific issues. The tone that came from Jeanne Harris and I is that there’s something going on. It’s new.”

Dietzman: I have a great working relationship with everyone on my council.

Coston: You’re very fortunate, and I have to tell you: It won’t last.

McCall: Some of it’s generational. If you don’t have an open-minded older generation, it can be really hard to get things done.

Tracy: Sometimes it’s just a feeling of sexism from the men. At one time, they were all members of the Lion’s Club. They were all doing all these things, and then there’s me. There’s always a feeling that Linda does all “those things” (like decorating a float for the city parade). This year, I shocked them all and am the liaison to the wastewater treatment plant.

McDaniel: It depends on the individual, on if you’re able to project the aggressive side of a personality, as well as be feminine.

Tracy: Oh, I’ve never been quiet, but sometimes, if I have too much of an opinion, and I’m a little too assertive, you can just tell that feathers ruffle.

McDaniel: I don’t feel that at all.

What about how women work with other women?

Harris: Women aren’t always very helpful to other women, and I don’t know why. In this last campaign, a woman (Anne McEnerny-Ogle) chose to run against me, and she would have knocked a woman out instead of adding to the council.

I don’t know what the thought process is there, but it’s not the first time we’ve talked about women being reticent to offer a hand up to other women, and we need to get better at that.

Tracy: Why did she choose to run against you, instead of a man? Because she didn’t think she could beat a man.

Kristine Carmona: I don’t know if it’s that. What if she chose to run against you because she didn’t like your ideas? I’d like to believe it’s because as equals we can say, “I chose to run against you.”

Stewart:We need a way for women elected (officials) to sit down and talk to each other, network and get some business done … and then to stay connected in a way that we’re mutually supported.

Coston:The 17 women senators in the (U.S.) Senate, they have a congeniality pact. Both Republicans and Democrats, regardless of political philosophy, they’re never going to diss one another.

Harris:(Former state legislator) Val Ogden always worked really hard to be a facilitator and mentor. Who is coming behind her doing the same thing?

But should a woman be elected, or appointed, just because she’s a woman, so that representation is fair?

Dietzman:That’s not one of the things I’m going to look at. Given the choice, I’m not going to vote for a woman just because she’s a woman.

Carmona: That’s actually more damaging to put a woman on (a board) just to say you have one. It gives the wrong impression, because there are a lot of smart, amazing women who can do the job.

What are some of the differences you feel?

Stewart: Women are more open to admitting that we don’t know what’s going on.

It doesn’t bother me to do that, it doesn’t make me feel stupid to do that. At least on our council, I know the men don’t do that.

Coston: Women are consensus builders — we really want to see many points of view, we want to see full viewpoints. I think women tend to do that more than men do.

Men tend to look at one side — their side — and one other, and then make a decision.

Have you personally experienced blatant sexism in your elected life?

Coston: No.

Harris:I was actually told I was going to have too much power if I were chairwoman of both C-Tran and the Regional Transportation Council. (Harris was removed from both boards last year).

In my experience, it’s done in more passive-aggressive ways.

Tracy: What I see is people who come to the city council, who are mostly older people, when they come to the dais after a meeting, they go right to the men to talk about a topic. It isn’t blatant, but you know it’s there.

Stewart: Nobody has ever said to my face they will not vote for me because I’m a woman.

Everybody should be equally respected, and we should value experience and knowledge.

Depending on the makeup of councils, this may or may not happen. There have been changes in Vancouver recently that have raised some things that I’ve not seen before.

McDaniel:It might have to do with the regions of the country. I’m from the South, and I don’t hate it when a person opens a door for me, and I don’t have a problem taking a compliment.

But I don’t have an issue standing up for myself. I’ve never actually been discriminated against because of my sex.

McCall: In a smaller town, it’s very old guard. But you have to remember when you’ve got an old guard, women have only had to the right to vote since 1920. We have come a long way and overcome a lot of prejudices.

Andrea Damewood covers city government. Reach her at 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com.