Douglas C. Pizac, Associated Press
FILE - In this May 8, 2004, file photo, Utah Gov. Olene Smith Walker speaks at the state Republican convention in Sandy, Utah. Since it became a state in 1896, Utah has had just one female governor--Republican Walker.

In 1895, Utah was the model for female enfranchisement nationwide; more recently, however, the state has struggled to support women in the political arena. Grass-roots efforts aiming to change that deserve recognition and support.

Today, Utah ranks in the bottom quintile for female representation in government, coming in 49th out of 50th in recent years. Additionally, Utah has one of the lowest female voter turnouts in the country. In the 16 years from 1996 to 2012, Utah’s ranking for the percentage of women voting dropped 45 spots.

Existing research reveals women are less likely to get involved politically when they have a limited understanding of governmental functions. Member of the Salt Lake County Council Aimee Winder Newton knows this and believes that as an elected official she has an obligation to do something about it.

To address this problem, she hosted a nonpartisan, womens-only educational presentation last week in her home titled “What’s What in Gov’t,” which touched on subjects ranging from caucusing for local elections to understanding where state taxes are allocated. According to Newton, women were eager to RSVP when she put out an invite on Facebook, and a waitlist for the event quickly formed.

Newton’s presentation is a form of consciousness-raising that has proved effective since the movement for women’s suffrage — one which should be modeled across Utah. Utah’s early suffragettes, like Sarah Kimball, used grass-roots mobilization tactics to again secure women’s enfranchisement (women in Utah first gained suffrage in 1870, though it was subsequently revoked).

Through small women’s groups in two-thirds of Utah’s counties, they educated their communities about the need for suffrage and lobbied their local representatives. Their ultimate success made Utah a model for equitable political representation nationwide — earning the admiration of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who copied Utah’s methods in the national suffrage movement.

Newton’s approach, though hardly a movement at this point, is essential to fostering an open, nonpartisan and welcoming environment for all participants, one that should be replicated across the state to enhance women’s political education, increase voter turnout and encourage more women to run for office.

23 comments on this story

Today, Utah’s Senate and House of Representatives have 16 female lawmakers out of 104 seats. This is well below an already statistically dismal national average for female representation — one which hovers, at all levels of government, around 20 percent. However, this can change, and any Utahn with expertise in politics can copy Newton’s model. Unlike organizing in the 1800s, citizens today are equipped with all the social media tools they need to organize and enhance civic engagement one woman at a time.

Utah needs the views, perspectives and opinions of its women, and concentrated efforts to encourage female participation in the state's decision-making processes are indeed deserving of our vote.