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

"As women and children go, so goes the nation. That has been proven," Jones said, "and that's why it's so important to get women into office. If you want to have a thriving country, you take care of your women and children. Female politicians are more likely to ensure that happens."

Alyson Brennan, President of Utah Women's Alliance for Building Community, also recognizes the significance of having a woman as head of the House for reasons other than policy preferences: "Getting that foot in the door is important," Brennan said. "(Lockhart's) election has set the stage for more Utah women to gain the confidence to run for political leadership positions."

So while females certainly have an impact on the way a legislature functions, being a woman in a man's world does not come without its challenges.

Greene Mickelsen, a Republican, said that she felt the greatest difficulty she faced as a woman politician was that she was only allowed a "very narrow emotional bandwidth."

"When women are placed in a leadership position, we tend to expect her to be tough. However, if she's too tough she seems 'witchy.' But she can't be too soft, because then she gets labeled as 'not tough enough for the job,' " she said.

Interestingly, she said that the greatest pressure to strike that emotional balance came not from the general public, but from the male politicians she dealt with. "Men oftentimes are uncomfortable with a strong degree of emotion. With women, more so than men, crying is a sign of weakness."

As for Utah women specifically, she said that the relationship between male and female politicians is especially tricky.

"Some men are not used to dealing with women as peers, I think this is especially the case in Utah," Greene Mickelsen said. "They are used to dealing with women as neighbors, or spouses of a friend, and for some reason, men in Utah have a difficult time making that leap from treating someone as a neighbor to treating them as a peer."

This sentiment was reflected in Senate President Michael Waddoups' statements after learning of Rep. Lockhart's election to speaker: "It's harder for me to be adamant with a woman than it is with a man. I have to balance her being a leader with her being a female colleague."

Greene Mickelsen, however, did not feel that the LDS Church has a negative impact on women running for office."I never ran into opposition in the way that people thought I was upsetting the patriarchal order of the LDS Church," said Mickelsen, a church member. "The outside perceptions in some parts of the country is that women's participation in Utah politics is influenced by the church, but I don't think so. For a lot of women it is about families, and the sacrifice it takes to be a politician."

Senator Jones, a Democrat and a Mormon, like Greene Mickelsen does not feel that membership in the LDS Church dissuades women from running for office.

"I certainly have not felt that the church influence discourages women to run for office," Jones said, "I have felt nothing but support from members of the church."

In January 2011, when Rebecca Lockhart assumes the title of "Madame Speaker," she will become an official part of the legacy of Utah women who have risen to positions of power in the government. Thus far, Lockhart has garnered the support of many fellow legislators, and it will be up to her to prove that she's capable to do this job just as well as any man.

e-mail: khenriod@desnews.com

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