This year’s Whatcom County primary election is breaking records with the highest number of women candidates of any previous race, according to data published by the Center for American Women in Politics.
The percentage of women in state legislatures has slowly gone up over time, with 25.4 percent of state legislatures being women in 2018 compared to 22.4 percent in 2001.
Washington state is within the top-10 states with the most women represented in state legislature at 37.4 percent, according to the Center for American Women in Politics, Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics.
The inspiration to run for office can be pinpointed to a sense of urgency for some women in Whatcom County.
After Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 election, Pinky Vargas, candidate for state senate, said she first felt disheartened, then recognized that women needed to stand up and make changes to support each other.
Vargas said the Women’s March gave a voice to women all over the world and inspired her to actively participate in the shift to represent women in government. Speaking at the march helped her realize she wasn’t alone and women running for office were going to support each other.
“There was unity, comradery and recognition that we needed to make this happen for us, because we felt like we were going backwards,” she said. “We cannot go backwards.”
Sharon Shewmake, Western assistant professor of economics, decided to run for state representative when she noticed incumbent Vincent Buys was set to run unopposed.
“The more I thought about it, the more I realized I would be really good at it,” Shewmake said. “People like me should be running.”
Although she has never run for public office, Shewmake studies what makes good policy every day. She said women need to be asked to run because they are qualified.
“I think seeing men that are so underqualified to do this has made women think ‘Maybe I could do this too,’” she said.
After watching Sen. Doug Ericksen serve as state legislature through her time on Bellingham City Council, Vargas said she eventually thought she could do a better job representing what she considered the values of Whatcom County.
“We have absolutely zero representation from the 42nd district,” Vargas said, referencing that no representatives from the 42nd voted for equal pay for equal work.
But she now feels more optimistic about change for women.
“I think we’re going to elect women all over the country and you’re going to see changes for women in a big way in 2019. I am really excited about that,” she said.
Pinky Vargas was nominated for Whatcom Professional Woman of the Year in 2017 and is endorsed by Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville for the 42nd district state senate seat.
Court of Appeals candidate Lisa Keeler shared a similar sentiment, saying that women seeing other women run makes them believe they can do it too.
“I want to contribute to my community and I think there’s a great need there to have people get involved,” Keeler said.
She said it is important to have government that is representative of the population it serves. Thirty-five percent of state court judge seats in Washington state belonged to women in 2016, according to data from the National Association of Women Judges.
Keeler said from her experience working in a sometimes male-dominated field, when you have an environment of men and women working together, you get better outcomes.
Linville said it is important to elect young men and women who respect each other. Some of this is understanding each other and understanding that women’s assertiveness is not aggression, she said.
Linville said women need to represent their conscious, district and party and that this should be done freely.
“It isn’t hard to do that if the freedom is there for everyone to express what they think and no one, including women, are intimidated out of saying what they think,” Linville said. “I think we’re at a critical time now where women need to assert themselves into the political scene.”
Linville finds major importance in looking at the overall picture of equality. While women have more equity now than in years past, she said we still see underrepresented populations, such as people of color and the LGBTQ+ community.
“People are still fighting for some of the rights that women had to fight for,” she said.