Utah group aims to help more women win public office
Utah Legislature ranks 44th in country for number of women representatives
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
SANDY — A record number of women are serving their states in the U.S. Congress, but they make up only about 19 percent of the national decision-making body, according to the Center for American Women in Politics.
The country, according to research by the center, ranks 76th in the world for the number of women serving in government, though America's population is made up of about 51 percent females.
"Women must lead. If we are going to change the world, we have to step up," newly elected Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski told dozens of women gathered for the winter training session of Real Women Run on Saturday. She said her desire to run for office was deep-seated out of a desire to effect change in the community she lives.
Biskupski helped found Utah's Real Women Run initiative in 2011 and it has hosted numerous events since then to encourage female participation in civic leadership and political office.
"We have a long way to go for equality, for women, for LGBT people, for everyone," Biskupski said, adding that public service is full of opportunities for women.
Utah has only ever had four women serve in U.S. congressional positions, including Rep. Mia Love, who is the first woman elected since 1997. The late Olene Walker is the only woman to have served as the state's governor and Jan Graham served as attorney general for about a decade, starting in 1993.
The Utah Legislature is 44th in the nation for its number of women serving. Females make up 15.4 percent, with six senators and 10 in the House of Representatives. Four women serve in leadership positions, and they all belong to the Democratic Party, according to local and national data.
Debbie Walsh, Saturday's keynote speaker and director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said Utah is ripe for change.
"I'm impressed with the women in Utah who are movers and shakers in shifting the face of power here," she said, adding that a cultural change like getting more female representation in local, state and national leadership will take time, but will be worthwhile.
"Our research shows that when women serve in leadership, the institutions they serve in make less risky movements and do better overall," Walsh said.
Besides the fairness issue of women being represented and the different talents that women possess, she said it matters to have women involved "because they make a difference."
Data, Walsh said, show that when women are in leadership positions, agendas, procedures, discussion, accessibility and outcomes change based on the individual qualities that women possess and bring to the table when they serve communities and institutions.
"Women bring a different set of life experiences, which helps them see the world in different ways," she said. "It changes everything to have them involved."
Women in history have effected change in various ways, including enactment of Title 9, which allows women to participate in collegiate sports; the Equal Credit Act allowing women to have their own credit cards; the Family Medical Leave Act; and women in Congress recently stopped potential government shutdowns with their own bipartisan discussion and compromise.
Biskupski said she faced scrutiny because of various labels she was given early on in the campaign trail, but it ended up inspiring her even more to succeed. She ultimately won her mayoral race, beating out the popular, two-term Mayor Ralph Becker.
While women face unique and various hardships in running for office — family obligations, a lack of confidence and difficulty fundraising, to name a few — Walsh said women still win as often as men, but that fewer women run for office in the first place.
"The change we want to see, unfortunately, isn't going to happen because we wish for it," she said. "We need to see more women running."
Utah women interested in public office can find additional resources and information at www.realwomenrun.org.
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