SALT LAKE CITY — The state GOP tapped former Congresswoman Enid Greene Mickelsen to deliver the keynote address when the Utah Republican Party hosted a first-of-its-kind Women's Leadership Summit on Sept. 24.
"Walking into the meeting and seeing hundreds of women at the State Capitol, standing-room only — everyone excited to be there, talking with each other, swapping stories, asking for advice — it had such a positive energy to it," Mickelsen remembers. "That was the most fun I've had in Utah politics in years."
The leadership summit attracted more than 200 women. Attendees learned about things like being a candidate, the role of consultants, fundraising, lobbying and grassroots activism.
As the summit's ripples continue reverberating through the Utah Republican Party, the Women's Leadership Initiative that spawned it attempts to shape the future of the Beehive State's political landscape by empowering a new class of politically minded women.
From 2002-03, Kitty Dunn served as president of the Utah Federation of Republican Women. During that time she began attempting to spark greater female involvement within the state Republican Party; consistent success initially eluded Dunn, but she persisted.
"I tried to instigate several programs to educate women," Dunn said. "We were somewhat successful — but sporadically so — because I don't think the women in Utah were quite ready to jump all the way into the pool. They were a little too hesitant to be aggressive, and so we had some cultural hurdles to jump over."
Dunn's efforts finally turned the proverbial corner in 2010. Not only had she risen to wield great influence as the vice chairman of the Utah Republican Party, but the rapid ascendance of the tea party and its do-it-yourself ethos primed the Beehive State's lady Republicans with greater zeal for political involvement.
"Not just in Utah but nationwide, women really were becoming more involved (politically) due mostly to the tea-party movement," Dunn said. "I recognized that now's the time, and we have just moved forward with our plans ever since then."
After pouring the foundation for the women's initiative and coordinating logistics for the Sept. 24 summit, and right as her efforts started yielding substantive fruit, Dunn resigned her post with the Utah GOP to join Sen. Orrin Hatch's re-election campaign.
Enter Sarah Nitta, who works at the state level with both the Women's Leadership Initiative and the Utah Federation of Republican Women. To harness the enthusiasm and momentum spilling over from September's summit, Nitta started organizing Women's Leadership Seminars — each with a guest speaker teaching a practical skill such as networking or public speaking. Held monthly, the five seminars to date have averaged approximately 50 women per session.
"Our goal," Nitta said, "is to educate, organize and train these women to be delegates, campaign workers, grassroots supporters and also candidates for office on all levels of government here in this state."
Also under Nitta's watch, the Utah Federation of Republican Women has upped the number of its local "clubs" from seven at the end of last year to 10 now. The three new clubs are Republican Women of Northern Utah, Summit County Republican Women and Republican Women of the Utah Valley.
Despite the inroads that females are making in Utah politics — such as Becky Lockhart becoming the first female Speaker of the Utah House in 2010, or Jennifer Scott and Deidre Henderson playing prominent roles in Jason Chaffetz's upset victory over Rep. Chris Cannon in 2008 — one obstacle that politically involved women continue to encounter is the stereotype that their place is at home and not in the political arena. It's an unsavory reality that Rep. Holly Richardson, R-Pleasant Grove, not only has already encountered less than four months into the job, but also overcome with some help from her friends.
"Enid Mickelson has been very kind to give me advice and recommendations on what she sees as differences between men and women in the political world," said Richardson, who presented about blogging last week at the Women's Leadership Seminar for May. "So I have gotten, and she got when she was in office, the comments of, 'Stay home with your babies — you have no role; you have no place; you shouldn't be involved.'
"It's been good to have other women who have been elected be able to say, 'You know what, we heard that too,' or, 'Just move past that because that's a normal thing when you're involved in politics.' "
In assessing Utah's male-dominated political landscape, Mickelsen echoes Richardson by asserting that, even in politics, women find solidarity and strength in numbers.
"It was never that women weren't welcome in the (Republican) party," Mickelsen said. "I've never had a problem with men trying to keep me out because I was a woman. But it was lonely sometimes. …
"Having had similar experiences, (women) working with each other is really helpful and positive. I think it's good for the party; I think it's good for politics; I think it's good for policy, which is the most important part."