Washington’s remarkable record of electing women to public office reflects a legacy of feminist activism. Although women had been elected to serve as county school superintendents as early as 1875, the Washington legislature passed a law in 1890 disqualifying women from public office. An early exception was made in 1895 when the legislature authorized women to serve on school boards, the state board of education, and as school superintendents. Surprisingly, the legislature did not formally repeal its general prohibition until 1963.
After the state enacted women’s suffrage in 1910, Washington women began to run for office in ever-increasing numbers. Elected in 1912 and serving in the 1913 state house of representatives, Frances C. Axtell from Bellingham and Nena J. Croake from Tacoma were the first two women to serve in the Washington State Legislature. Reba Hurn from Spokane was in 1923 the first woman elected to the state senate. Josephine Corliss Preston, elected in 1912 as Superintendent of Public Instruction, was the first woman to serve in a statewide office. From the mid 1960s on, women of color began holding office as well, with Representative Marjorie Pitter King (appointed in 1965 to fill an unexpired term) being Washington’s first black female legislator, Representative Velma Veloria the first Filipina American (elected 1992), and Senator Margarita Prentice (house, 1988; senate, 1993) the first Latina. As of this writing, over 240 women have served in the Washington legislature since 1913.
For almost 25 years Washington has consistently been a leader in electing women to the state legislature. From 1993 to 2004 Washington led the nation in the percentage of female state legislators. In 1999 and 2000 Washington boasted the highest percentage of female legislators in the nation’s history, with women making up 41 percent of its legislators. In 2011 women comprised approximately one-third of the state’s legislators.
Several women have also served as Superintendent of Public Instruction including Preston, Pearl Wanamaker from 1941 to 1957; Judith Billings from 1989 to 1997 and Terry Bergeson from 1997 to 2009.
Frances AxtellVivian CaverAnna ColwellNena J. CroakeRosa FranklinJulia Butler HansenFrances HaskellMarjorie Pitter KingDawn MasonPeggy MaxieJosephine Corliss PrestonNancy RustCatherine May PapersCarrie Shumway--Kirkland City Council
Celebrating 100 Years of Women in the Washington State Legislature
100 Years of Women in the Legislature Panel Discussion--TVW
The Impacts on Politics & Policies of Women in the Legislature--Taft Seminar, TVW
"Belle Reeves: Her Life and Legacy" by Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman
Moving Forward, Looking Back: Washington's First Women in Government, Washington State Heritage Center exhibit.
Rutgers Center for Women and Politics includes data about elected Washington Women.
The Washington State Legislature Oral History Project
Women in State Government: Past, Present, Future by Susan J. Carroll examines the current status of women in state government following a decrease in the numbers of women elected to state legislatures in 2010.
Women in the State Legislature Database, Washington State Library
Facts on Women in Congress
Graphs, Increase in Washington Elected Women, 1910-2011
Percentage of Washington Women Legislators By Year, 1889-2011
Percentages of Women in State Legislatures, 2011
Women Members and Officers of the Washington State Legislature 1913-2014
Women Legislators in the Washington House and Senate 1913-2014 (graph)
Women Legislators in the Washington House 1913-2014 (graph)
Women Legislators in the Washington Senate 1913-2014 (graph)