Jolene Unsoeld's political beginnings date to the early 1970s, when as a self-described citizen meddler she worked on Initiative 276, a successful 1972 ballot measure that required the state to make information about campaign contributions to elected officials and candidates publicly available. A Democrat, Unsoeld was elected to the state legislature in 1984 and served two terms representing northern Thurston County. Elected in 1988 to the U.S. House of Representatives from the Third District encompassing much of Southwest Washington, she served three terms before being defeated by Linda Smith (b. 1950) in 1994. Unsoeld was appointed to the Washington State Fish & Wildlife Commission in 1995 and served for a little more than two years before retiring from public life.
Jolene Bishoprick was born December 3, 1931, in Corvallis, Oregon, to Stanley Bishoprick Jr. (1904-1995) and Cora Trapman Bishoprick (1913-1974). She was the first of four children, followed by a brother, Stanley III (1937-2013), and two sisters, Kareen and Wenonah.
Stan Bishoprick Jr. was a successful timber salesman and in 1936 he joined the Dant and Russell Lumber Company, a booming business with operations all over the world. In 1937 he was assigned to the company's location in Shanghai, China. Despite the Japanese occupation of the city later that year, the Bishopricks were reasonably safe during most of their three-plus years there. Jolene later remembered that her father had good relations with both Chinese and Japanese officials, noting that the Japanese were eager to be friendly with Americans, mainly because of Japan's reliance on American imports, especially oil. Relations between the two countries subsequently soured, and by late 1940 it was becoming serious enough that the Bishopricks returned to the United States and settled in Portland, Oregon.
The family moved to Vancouver, Washington, in 1945. Jolene attended Vancouver High School, where she developed a liberal and Democratic bent -- the opposite of her parents, Republicans who believed President Franklin Roosevelt's (1882-1945) policies smacked of socialism. A bright, bubbly young woman, she was more involved in school activities than dating. She was co-valedictorian of her senior class in 1949 and moved back to Corvallis that fall to attend Oregon State College (now Oregon State University).
At Oregon State she joined the college mountaineering club, and before long met fellow climber Bill Unsoeld (1926-1979). Both avid mountain climbers, they announced their engagement atop Mount Saint Helens, and soon after, on June 11, 1951, they were married on the banks of the Columbia River in Vancouver. Four children -- two boys and two girls -- followed, all born in May at two-year intervals: Regon (b. 1952), Nanda Devi (1954-1976), Krag (b. 1956), and Terres (b. 1958). In 1955, between pregnancies, Jolene became the first woman to climb the north face of Grand Teton in Wyoming.
During the 1950s the growing family lived in Ohio and then Berkeley, California, before moving to Seattle. In 1958 the Unsoelds returned to Oregon State College, where Bill joined the faculty as an associate professor of philosophy and religion. But far broader horizons loomed. In 1962 the family moved to Kathmandu, Nepal, where Bill Unsoeld worked as a deputy director at the Peace Corps's newly opened branch office. Jolene directed an English-language program for Nepalese residents at a local institute, which eventually grew to 200 students and six instructors.
Ever drawn to the mountains, in 1963 Bill Unsoeld joined Tom Hornbein (b. 1930) as the first climbers to ascend Mount Everest's West Ridge. They returned via the South Col route, becoming also the first climbers to traverse the famous peak by descending a different route from their ascent. They were forced to spend a night near the summit and were lucky to survive; Unsoeld still ending up losing nine toes to frostbite. He and Hornbein became well known after their conquest, and Bill became known by a new nickname: Willi.
Finding Her Voice
In 1967 the Unsoelds returned to the United States, where Willi joined Outward Bound, a nonprofit organization providing outdoor and experiential programs for youths and adults. In 1970 they moved to Olympia, where Willi accepted a position at Evergreen State College, a brand-new school that would open the following year. And it was in Olympia that Jolene Unsoeld found her voice.
In 1971 Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925) signed the Open Public Meetings Act, which gave the public the right to attend meetings of many state and local government entities. However, many felt the law didn't go far enough, and argued for a law requiring the disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures.
Working with the newly formed Washington Coalition for Open Government, Unsoeld helped draft Initiative 276, titled the Public Disclosure Act. The act required the state to provide information to the public about sources of campaign contributions to elected officials and candidates and set limits on campaign expenditures in the state. The act also required lobbyists to report their expenditures and called for the creation of the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission to gather all of this information and provide it to the public. The initiative passed handily in the 1972 general election, with more than 72 percent of the votes in favor.
Using information collected by the Public Disclosure Commission during the 1974 midterm election, Unsoeld published a small book titled Who Gave? Who Got? How Much? that spelled out the contributions received in the state's legislative campaigns that year. The book put her in the public spotlight. The press liked her activism, and her mountaineering skills made her even more interesting. She followed up with a larger book with the same title and more detailed information after the 1976 election. Her name began appearing more frequently in newspaper articles as the 1970s continued; while she got credit when credit was due, the press commonly pointed out that she was the wife of "Willi Unsoeld, noted mountaineer" (Gilje).
Then tragedy struck. In September 1976 the Unsoelds' daughter Devi fell ill and died while attempting to climb Nanda Devi, the second-highest mountain in India and the peak she was named after. In March 1979 Willi Unsoeld died in an avalanche on Mount Rainier. Jolene Unsoeld later explained that she worked her way through her grief: "With both of their deaths I was so immersed in the political stuff that I didn't have much time to think about lots of things … [but] I also think learning to live beyond grief toughened me up for running for office" (Hughes, 36).
In 1984 Unsoeld ran for a seat in the Washington State House of Representatives from the 22nd District, which covered a slice of northern Thurston County and included Olympia, Lacey, and Tumwater. Her name recognition was a definite advantage -- though she was still often identified as Willi Unsoeld's widow -- and she won by nearly 7 percentage points over her Republican opponent, Jim Wright. During her four years in the legislature, she served as vice-chair of the House Environmental Affairs Committee and sat on the Energy & Utilities Committee as well as the Higher Education Committee.
During her first term Unsoeld opposed a state Senate bill, later passed, that blocked local governments from enacting more-restrictive gun control laws. In her second term, she voted to allow police to revoke concealed-weapon permits for those convicted of possessing a gun while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. These votes would later become a thorn in her side when she served in the U.S. House of Representatives.
But that was in the future. In 1986, Unsoeld was convincingly reelected by a nearly 2-to-1 margin over Republican Kent Jaussi. During her second term she accomplished what writer John Hughes described as her "signature achievement as an activist state legislator" (Hughes, 39) when she helped develop legislation to create a statewide hazardous-waste cleanup plan. Unsoeld met with corporate lobbyists and high-caliber attorneys who were far more experienced than she in tough negotiations, but neither side backed down much. The result was dueling initiatives on the 1988 statewide ballot: Initiative 97, supported by Unsoeld, which called for a tax on hazardous substances to fund a cleanup program, and Initiative 97B, which called for a smaller tax and a smaller program. Despite being significantly outspent by backers of 97B, Initiative 97 prevailed by 6 percentage points in the November election.
On to Congress
Unsoeld was moving on by then. In 1988 she ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington's Third District, which stretched from Olympia south to Vancouver, east to the Cascades, and west to the Pacific Ocean. Her opponent was Bill Wight, a West Point graduate who had served in Vietnam before working as a Senate aide during the Reagan administration. Given her greater name recognition, Unsoeld was expected to prevail fairly easily. She did win, but it wasn't easy. It took two weeks after election day to determine that she was the apparent winner, and it took a recount the following month to verify her victory. The recount confirmed a win by 618 votes, less than three-tenths of 1 percent of the total votes cast. It was the closest U.S. House election of 1988.
Unsoeld was sworn in to the 101st Congress in 1989. She was the third woman to represent the state in Congress, having been preceded by Catherine May (1914-2004) and Julia Butler Hansen (1907-1988), and she joined a cadre of 30 other women then serving in the House, representing slightly more than 7 percent of the membership that year. Her first act in Congress was to agree to co-sponsor a gay-rights bill -- a risky act for a politician in the 1980s -- without discussing it with her staff, who had cautioned her against it. It was classic, I'll-make-my-own-call Unsoeld.
During her first term she served on the Merchant Marine & Fisheries and the Education & Labor committees, and on the House Select Committee on Aging. As part of her work on the former, she aggressively lobbied for a United Nations ban on driftnet fishing; it was one of the signature issues she handled during her six years in Congress. Driftnet fishing involved the use of nets that often stretched 30 miles long and reached 50 feet deep, indiscriminately killing millions of fish and birds each year. The U.N. adopted the ban in late 1991.
Unsoeld faced a grueling challenge in her bid for reelection in 1990. She encountered hostile crowds in campaign appearances because of her support for logging restrictions to protect the northern spotted owl and her advocacy for sustainable forest practices. These stands translated into fewer jobs for the timber industry, whose employees made up a significant percentage of voters in her district. And she continued to face problems being taken seriously because she was a woman.
Shortly before the election, she appeared to switch positions on gun control when she opposed legislation calling for a strict assault-weapons ban and instead sponsored an amendment banning only assault weapons manufactured from imported parts. This infuriated her liberal base in northern Thurston County, and some thought it would further weaken her chances of reelection. Instead, she defeated her Republican opponent, Bob Williams, by more than 7 percent. She was reelected in 1992 by an even wider margin, almost 12 percent, over Pat Fiske, and this victory came after an early-1990s redistricting that took parts of liberal Thurston County, Unsoeld's home base, out of the Third District.
During her final term in Congress, Unsoeld helped draft the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993. This act created the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees programs such as AmeriCorps, SeniorCorps, and other national initiatives that provide opportunities for people wanting to serve their communities. In that same year, she opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, arguing that it would benefit U.S. corporations looking for cheap labor (especially in Mexico) at the expense of American workers.
Unsoeld faced a serious election challenge in 1994, in part from voters in her district whom she had alienated with her positions on the issues, and in part from general voter discontent that year with the Democratic Party. Though she finished first in the September primary, she had less than 40 percent of the vote against three Republicans and an independent candidate, and did not garner a majority of the votes even in normally reliable Thurston County. It was an ominous sign for her prospects in the November general election, which she lost to Linda Smith by more than 7 percentage points. Unsoeld was one of 54 Democratic casualties in the House that year who fell to what quickly became known as the Republican Revolution, and the GOP gained control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time since the 83rd Congress of 1953-1954.
Fish & Wildlife Commission
Unsoeld taught at Harvard as a fellow of the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1995, then returned to Washington. In October 1995 she was appointed to the Washington Fish & Wildlife Commission by Governor Mike Lowry (1939-2017), and in 1997 she was reappointed by Governor Gary Locke (b. 1950). However, she became unpopular after arguing that more restrictions on fishing were necessary to restore salmon runs. Her opponents pounced, and they had an advantage. The Republican-led state Senate had never confirmed her appointment to the commission, and now it could refuse to do so. In February 1998 that's exactly what senators did, in a mostly party-line vote of 26 to 22.
Unsoeld received the James Madison Award from the Washington Coalition for Open Government in 2008 in recognition of her decades-long work to advance open government, and in 2016 she received further recognition when the Washington Secretary of State's "Legacy of Washington" project published a biography of her. In 2017, she was living quietly at Cooper Point northwest of Olympia. She died at home on November 28, 2021, with sons Krag and Reagon by her side.