SALT LAKE CITY — Several female lawmakers are concerned women's issues took a step back in Utah this year, with a number of key women-focused proposals dying while others were approved despite lawmakers saying they could hurt women.
One possible factor, according to analysts: Despite the fact that women account for half of the state's residents, female lawmakers have made up 15 percent of the legislature each of the last two years— the lowest it has been in two decades, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. By comparison, almost half of neighboring Colorado's lawmakers are women.
"It's just a given that when we have more female legislators up there on the hill, there's just a greater understanding of issues that impact women and probably more proactiveness in addressing them," said Stephanie Pitcher of the Utah Women's Coalition.
Pitcher referenced failed proposals this session such as one that would have made it illegal for private businesses to discriminate against women for breastfeeding and another that would have removed the tax on tampons and other feminine hygiene products.
"I think most men don't purposefully try and negatively impact women, it's just that they don't know what they don't know," said Patricia Jones of the Women's Leadership Institute in Utah, who served in the state's legislature from 2000 to 2014.
Jones said she noticed the number of proposals that could negatively affect women increase during her years in office.
Adam Brown, an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University, said that having fewer female lawmakers doesn't automatically mean there will be a lot of pro-men bills passed. "But it might mean there are women's concerns that just aren't being talked about," he said.
During a recent event at the University of Utah centered on answering the question of whether women better off now than they were in January, Republican Rep. Becky Edwards highlighted the Medicaid expansion plan that passed this session. "You talk about bills that have been good for women, bills that have been bad for women, and then I think this bill can be best characterized as leaving women out of the equation," she said.
The plan would cover about 16,000 adults who are homeless or in treatment and offender programs. Edwards said this will primarily benefit men, as they make up substantially more of the homeless and prison population than women.
"There were a lot of things that happened that hurt women," said Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City.
Romero highlighted the law that passed this session requiring doctors to give anesthesia to women having an abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy or later based on the disputed premise that a fetus feels pain at that point. The law was passed despite concern from doctors that it could increase the health risks to women. More than half of the state's female lawmakers voted against that law.
Anne Burkholder, CEO of Utah's YWCA, said a female lawmaker is not automatically going to act in the best interest of women, but they will have more awareness about the ways public policy can be used to improve the lives of women and girls.
Burkholder said there were bills passed this session that helped women, including one that would create accommodations for pregnant and breastfeeding employees.
Republican Sen. Margaret Dayton of Orem said if women want to be seen as equal to men, they shouldn't get special treatment. She said she disagrees with removing the tax on feminine hygiene products and extending the funding for commission about women in the economy.
"I don't mind accommodating women, but we need to also be accommodating to men," Dayton said.