SALT LAKE CITY — Jennifer Seelig was going to be a writer, not a politician. That changed after a mentor nominated Seelig, now Utah's House minority leader, for a local planning commission.
"That was really scary for me," said Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, referring to her four-year post on the Salt Lake City planning commission. "I was always worried about if I was going to say the right thing."
But four years as a commissioner also boosted her confidence, giving her experience in public speaking, negotiating and dealing with the press.
Seelig is among a few handfuls of women legislators who are vastly outnumbered by their male counterparts. Half of all the state is female, but fewer than one in five legislators are women. Neighboring Colorado tallies two female legislators to every three men.
Nationally, almost a quarter of state legislators in the United States are women. But the proportion of women in the Utah Legislature is the lowest it has been since 1998. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, only four states have a smaller female percentage: Alabama, Oklahoma, Louisiana and South Carolina. And no women in Utah hold a statewide or congressional office.
Now, lawmakers and others are working to change that by recruiting female candidates.
Real Women Run, a Utah group dedicated to raising the number of Utah women in politics, urges women to join boards or commissions like Seelig did. The group also holds classes for women interested in running for office.
Former Utah Rep. Jackie Biskupski, an organizer for the group, said those classes go over the fine points of running a campaign: recruiting volunteers, tweeting and knocking on doors, among other things. The classes also review skills for holding public office, including negotiating with lawmakers and managing staff members.
Women, Biskupski said, tend to be skilled negotiators and good listeners, adept at finding common ground. Increasing the number of women in the legislature is vital, Biskupski said, because female legislators help bring about important changes their male counterparts might not promote. As evidence, Biskupski pointed to the record of House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart, R-Provo, who has served in the House since 1999.
As a woman and a nurse, Biskupski said, Lockhart brought a new perspective to the House floor. That perspective made Lockhart instrumental, Biskupski said, in passing legislation which allowed midwives to enter homes without a doctor present. "There was so much work that went into it," Biskupski said. "She was instrumental in bringing both sides together."
Lockhart cited what she called Utah's cultural focus on family as a reason that few women in the state run for office.
"I think that what we see is that women in Utah choose to stay home do other things," Lockhart said. "I don't think we should discourage that or make judgments. Wanting to be a mom and raise your children is an incredibly strong and good decision to make.
"The challenge isn't to demand that more women be in the Legislature," Lockhart said, "but to help them understand that that's an opportunity."
Lockhart emphasized the importance of networking at local political party gatherings as an important tool in recruiting women.
"Women generally make very good candidates," Lockhart said. "More often than not, when they run, they get elected."
For most women, the thought of running for office is intimidating, said Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork.
"Women have the tendency to think that they have to know everything about something before they attempt to do it," she said. "Men are more, 'Hey, I'm gonna figure it out as I go.'
"I see the Democrats do a better job at this," than her own Republican party, she said, pointing to the House Democrats' ratio of eight women to six men.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he wasn't sure why more women don't run for the state Senate. Half the people who sign up to shadow him for a day are women, he estimates. But out of 24 Republican senators, only two are female.
"I think we need a better balance," he said. Addressing hypothetical female candidates, he added "Please run. We need you in the Legislature."
Niederhauser drew criticism last month after a fundraising event at which he jokingly asked Henderson which of a group of lawmakers she would like to date. Niederhauser apologized, calling his question inappropriate.
"If there's a silver lining in that whole thing," he said, it's that the need for more Republican female lawmakers "has been emblazoned on my mind."
After serving as a commissioner, Seelig, the House minority leader, said she hesitated for a few months before deciding to vie for a seat in the House. She credits her stints as a commissioner and a common counselor as training grounds that taught her to state her case, listen actively and adjust to the public spotlight.
She still feels nervous, she said, when she steps up to the microphone to testify for or against bills. "It's nerve-wracking," she said. But "it's part of the role and responsibility."