A woman’s place is in the House (and the Senate)

The Better UTAH Beat airs Tuesday afternoons on KVNU’s For the People. Podcasts of previous episodes are available here.
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We’ve entered the last week of Women’s History Month. An entire month devoted to honoring, understanding and telling the stories of women. In Utah, the month has been marked by exhibits at the University of Utah and other institutions across the state, as well as increased media coverage and conversations about women’s issues.

Utah has long had a tradition that favored women’s accomplishments. In fact, Utah became the second state to extend suffrage to its women citizens. Wyoming was the first. But Utah had other firsts, as well–like electing the first female state Senator. That first occurred in 1896, when Martha Hughes Cannon, a Democrat, beat out a slew of other candidates, including her husband who had run as a Republican, to become the first woman state Senator in the entire country.

There is a concern, however, that we’ve rested too long on our laurels. Women are woefully underrepresented in the state legislature and throughout Utah politics. It took well over a century after Cannon’s election for Utah to elect a woman Speaker of the House. There’s never been a woman Senate President.

One group is trying to get more women politically involved. Real Women Run is a non-partisan organization created in Utah to train and recruit women for public office. The organization is based out of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, but has partnered with multiple organizations, including Vision 2020, the League of Women Voters of Utah, and members from all of Utah’s political parties. To give you an idea of how diverse this group is, two of its participating members include conservative, Utah county blogger and former Republican legislator Holly Richardson and Democrat Jennifer Seelig, outgoing minority leader in the Utah House of Representatives.

According to Real Women Run, Utah is ranked #43 in the nation for number of women in the state legislature. And even though women are more likely to vote than men, only 25 percent of current Republican delegates are women. The Democrats do a little better, with 45% of delegates that are women. The Count My Vote compromise, that will likely weaken the influence of the caucuses, could be an important change for women seeking office.

And lest you think the reason there are fewer women than men in office is because they have a harder time winning elections, that isn’t true either. Real Women Run notes that women are just as good as men at winning elections–there are just fewer of them who choose to run.

My own experience in and around Utah politics has been mixed. I have had occasions, albeit rare, when misogyny reared its ugly head, but for the most part, I have been welcomed and included in the process even though that inclusion feels as though it has been granted rather than earned. Rather than acknowledging the diversity and wealth of experiences that women bring to office, far too often those same experiences are used against women.

In 2007, then Salt Lake Mayoral candidate, Jenny Wilson was derided by Rocky Anderson, the current mayor, for campaigning instead of being at home with her children. It would seem the bigger problem lies in not only our own expectations but also society’s. If women are going to do it all–raise a family, have a career, hold elected office–then society needs to acknowledge the value of every one of those contributions by celebrating and supporting them.

Good government requires a diversity of experiences to ensure that Utahns are all being fairly represented. The different life experiences that women and men bring to the Capitol are an important element of that diversity.

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