Initiative encourages 'real' Utah women to run for office, seek service on boards

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 23 2013 7:15 p.m. MST

Donna McAleer listens during a fundraising event for Hispanic candidates for Utah Legislature in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012.

Brian Nicholson, OKespaol

SALT LAKE CITY — A year ago, Donna McAleer wrote a blog post on Utah's inaugural Real Women Run initiative.

The initiative encourages Utah women to run for public office, work on political campaigns, serve on public boards and commissions, and participate in forming public policy.

Although women make up half of the state's population, Utah is among the states with the lowest percentages of women state legislators. 

McAleer, a West Point graduate, commissioned Army officer, former Winter Olympic hopeful, author and business/nonprofit agency executive, wrapped up the entry posing the question, "If not you, then who?"

A fellow West Point graduate who read her blog called her bluff.

"That means you, ma'am," the younger Army officer wrote.

"When I got that from him, it was like cold water in the face," she said in an interview Wednesday.

A short time later, McAleer, a Park City Democrat, was in the throes of a congressional campaign, which also included a primary election.

"Maybe I was writing to convince myself," she said.

McAleer said taking part in Real Women Run was "a great primer for what's it all about."

Participants are taught, encouraged and mentored by former Rep. Karen Shepherd, D-Utah, the last Utah woman to serve in Congress; former Salt Lake City Mayor Deedee Corradini; and former Republican state representative, longtime school board member and candidate for lieutenant governor Sheryl Allen.

"All these different women from different levels of office were willing to share their experiences in a very intimate setting that allows you to get a feel of how this works. They're all available to talk to you. There's a lot to learn from women who have done this before," McAleer said.

The second Real Women Run initiative launches at 5:30 p.m. Thursday with a networking social at the YMCA Center for Families, 310 E. 300 South. 

The social is an opportunity for Utah women to meet and mingle with women who have run for and held elective office.

The initiative, created by the YWCA Salt Lake City and the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, also includes political leadership training on March 16 on the Miller Campus of Salt Lake Community College. Vision 2020, a national initiative to commemorate the 100th anniversary the women's suffrage movement, is also a partner.

Although McAleer's first foray into political office ended in defeat to incumbent Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, she says the experience was instructive. 

"Fifty-five thousand people who didn't know me eight months before believed in me enough to vote for me," she said. 

The experienced deepened her belief that "we need a representative form of government. We really don't have that now. This is why it's important that women run."

Anne Burkholder, chief executive officer of the YWCA Salt Lake City, said the nonprofit wants to empower all women to become active and seek leadership roles in local, state and national offices and issues.

The number of women serving in elected office is not representative of the population in either Utah or nationally, Burkholder said.

According to Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics, Utah ranks 45th for the percentage of women who serve in state legislatures or assemblies. Nationwide, 24 percent of more than 7,300 state lawmakers are women. Among Utah's 104 state lawmakers, 16.3 percent are women. Only Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Louisiana have lower percentages.

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