Utah State Historical Society
Utah State Senator Martha Hughes Cannon was the first woman elected to a State Senate in the United States.

When it comes to women participating in politics, Utah has a proud history. The pioneers first granted women suffrage in 1870 through the territorial Legislature. And even though the federal government forced the territory to renounce that decision, the founders of the state had the final say by writing women's right to vote into the state's constitution at the time of statehood, 24 years before women won that right nationally.

In 1896, Martha Hughes Cannon was elected to the state Senate, thus becoming the first woman in the United States to hold that office. Clearly, Utah is a state whose people have believed in the full political participation of women, and who value their leadership capabilities as much as those of men.

How unfortunate, then, that the state has slid to a point where, compared to the rest of the nation, it appears as a place where women leaders aren't welcome. As recently as 2002, the state ranked 23rd in the percentage of women elected to its Legislature. Today, it ranks 43rd, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. In Utah, roughly 17 percent of the Legislature is female, compared to a national average of 23 percent. In neighboring Colorado, the figure is 40 percent.

At present, all statewide offices, and Utah's entire congressional delegation, consist of men.

A group of concerned people has started an initiative called Real Women Run, which held a daylong training session Saturday. Leaders of the group believe more women would involve themselves in politics if they were armed with resources, trained in methods and encouraged to become members of public boards commissions, which often are training grounds for public service. The group is led by women leaders in Utah, but it has the support of several organizations including, significantly, both major political parties. The effort to recruit women is nonpartisan. How those candidates decide to define their platforms is up to them.

This is a worthy effort deserving of support. Underlying the problem, however, is a political system that, for whatever reason, has been seen by too many women as uninviting. Much has been said recently about the state's unique caucus system for choosing delegates to county and state conventions, and for the way those conventions choose candidates. While it is true that neighborhood caucuses are open to all comers, women generally don't participate to the same degree as men.

Two years ago, a Dan Jones & Associates poll for the Deseret News/KSL in conjunction with the Hinckley Institute found that women make up 55 percent of Republican voters in the state but only 25 percent of convention delegates. On the Democrats' side, women were 60 percent of voters and only 43 percent of delegates. Young people and newcomers to the state also were disproportionately represented.

These considerations also should be viewed against the backdrop of an overall voter turnout rate that is among the lowest in the nation.

Political participation is a sign of a healthy, vibrant society. We're not suggesting that women should be elected just for the sake of comparing better with other states. However, it is clear that many capable and qualified women in Utah who undoubtedly have much to contribute are choosing not to engage in public service. Given the state's impressive heritage, and a recent history that includes women in the positions of governor, attorney general, congressional representatives and several mayors, including that of the state's largest city, the trend ought to trouble everyone.