A matter of representation

18 percent of Utah Legislature is female, well behind the percentage of other states

Published: Friday, Nov. 26 2010 9:00 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Rebecca Lockhart joined an exclusive club this month. She became one of only three women nationally elected to serve as speaker of their state House next year.

Her election also marked a watershed moment in Utah politics: when Lockhart ascends to the pulpit at the state Capitol, she'll become the first woman ever to lead the Utah House of Representatives.

While that's a sign of progress for those who would like to see more women in politics, Utah still lags behind other states in terms of the overall representation of females in state elected offices. Women are outnumbered five-to-one in the state legislature, for example. Nationally, women make up 20-25 percent of state legislatures on average. In Utah, only 18 percent of the legislature is female.

That feeds a perception, both inside and outside the state, that when it comes to politics, Utah has always been male-dominated. While it may be true that the main characters of Utah's political story are mostly men, women have played an important role in shaping the state's political landscape. In fact, compared to many other states, Utah has been downright progressive when it comes to women's suffrage, and female participation in political positions in general.

"I do feel that there are misconceptions about women in Utah politics," said Enid Greene Mickelsen, a former U.S. congresswoman from Utah. "People don't realize that historically, Utah has been at the forefront, paving the way for female involement in the political arena."

In fact, in 1879, Utah became the second state/territory to give women the right to vote (the first was Wyoming a year earlier), 50 years before the 19th amendment was ratified and all American women could vote. Utah was also the first state to elect a female to a state senate when Martha Hughes Cannon, a physician, defeated her husband in the 1896 election.

In 2003, Olene Walker succeeded Mike Leavitt to become Utah's first female governor. While that may not seem particularly noteworthy, only 24 states have elected a woman governor.

And Utah's not alone in its lack of female representation in its state Legislature, says Katie Ziegler, program manager of the Women's Legislative Network of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. According to Ziegler, the number of women in state legislatures next year will actually be lower than in 2010. "In our research, one of the most interesting things we've found is that on average, women feel like they didn't have time to balance a political campaign and career with their work schedules, and especially their family respsonsibilities," Ziegler said, "Women also don't feel that there is a a fair political and media environment. Also, many women don't feel as qualified as men to run for office. Women have needed more encouragement from outside sources to run for office than men tend to."

Sen. Pat Jones, the first woman to serve as minority leader in the Utah Senate, says that she has used her gender to her advantage. "If anything, my gender has been an asset." She, like Lockhart, does not look at gender as her defining characteristic, but she does believe that there is a need for more women in office.

Jones says it's an advantage to have more women in state legislatures, because women unequivocally affect the policies that state legislatures take on. "You'll see more women championing child care, health issues and education than men," she said. "And having women in leadership is great because people who are in leadership have more influence on agenda. They decide what gets talked about."

Ziegler agrees. "Scholars have found that female state legislators' votes and policy preferences are different from males. Women tend to take more liberal positions on public health, gun control, social welfare and environmental protection issues."

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