40 years after Senate Republicans set example, House Democrats on verge of electing a female speaker

Senate Republicans named Jeannette Hayner to top caucus position in 1979

OLYMPIA – The hoopla surrounding the selection of the first female speaker of the Washington House misses an important point, says Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville.

The Senate Republicans did the same thing 40 years ago.

The late Sen. Jeannette Hayner, R-Walla Walla, was named to the top leadership position in the Senate Republican Caucus in 1979, and served in that position for 14 legislative sessions. The minority leader in the Senate is equivalent to the minority leader in the House. However, when Republicans took the narrow majority, Hayner become majority leader, which is the equivalent of the House speakership.

“We are delighted to see the House Democrats follow the example set by Senate Republicans 40 years ago,” said Becker, who serves as Senate Republican Caucus chair. “Sure seemed to take a long time, though.”

Indeed, six of the eight leadership positions in the Senate Republican Caucus are presently held by women, a record unmatched by the Legislature’s other three partisan caucuses.

Forty years ago, women in leadership positions in the Washington Legislature were not so commonplace. Hayner was the first woman to hold the top leadership position in any caucus.  

Hayner died at age 91 in 2010, 18 years after leaving office. During her time as leader, she was known as the Iron Lady of the Senate, an obvious comparison with Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, who took power at roughly the same time. But Hayner lasted two years longer, and unlike Thatcher, she retired of her own free will.

A Walla Walla attorney, Hayner was elected to the House from the 16th Legislative District in 1972 and moved to the Senate in 1976. At the time, Republicans were a demoralized minority, decimated by the post-Nixon backlash. Hayner joined a group of dissident Republican senators who thought their leadership too willing to accept minority status. They ousted their leaders in a surprise internal caucus vote during the 1979 session, but none of the coup leaders could win a majority of votes, and Hayner became minority leader.

During her 14 years at the top, Hayner’s Republicans held the majority during seven legislative sessions. Though their margin was never more than a single vote, the Republicans held firm control as Hayner insisted they keep disagreements in the caucus room and present a united front on the floor. After retirement, she served as the first board president of TVW, Washington state’s public-affairs TV network. The network’s Olympia production facility bears her name, the Jeannette C. Hayner Media Center.

“Jeannette Hayner was known for her ability to broker compromises the entire caucus could get behind,” Becker said. “That’s not as easy as it sounds. She really was one of the most effective leaders in the history of the Legislature.

“The election of the state’s first female speaker of the House is worthy of note, and we’re glad to see our colleagues have finally gotten the message. But we also should recognize the glass ceiling in the Legislature was shattered four decades ago, and it was the Senate Republicans and Jeannette Hayner who did it.”