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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."

"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