Courtesy of Erin Jemison
Erin Jemison, director of public policy at YWCA Utah.

You don’t have to look far for references to 2018 as “the year of the woman,” usually in regard to more women running for elected office or the #MeToo movement and its ripple effects. But what about the Utah Legislature and the 2018 session that recently wrapped up? Did we see progress for Utah women and girls? Was there more conversation about the impact of policy decisions on women and their families? Are there indications that it was “the year of the woman” on Utah’s Capitol Hill?

The answer, of course, depends on whom you ask. It’s difficult to craft legislation, develop policy positions and advocate for change in a way that speaks for all women in Utah. What we can do, though, is use credible research, stakeholder input and community engagement to identify and advocate for policies that strengthen key dimensions of women’s lives. YWCA Utah does this in three focus areas: economic empowerment and stability, racial justice and civil rights, and health and safety. Every year is the “year of the woman” for YWCA Utah, and has been since 1906. This year, we saw positive progress in some areas during the legislative session, while other areas stalled or failed to find consensus.

Health and safety issues fared best in the 2018 session. Progress ranged from increased awareness of maternal depression and anxiety as a public health issue in Utah (SCR11), to improved protections for domestic violence survivors (SB27 among others) and better access to family planning (HB12) and home visiting services for low-income women and families (SB161). Overall, 2018 was a good year in Utah for moving forward to ensure access to health care for all women and girls, improving mental health resources, and strengthening domestic violence services.

We also saw promising steps for some racial justice and civil rights priorities. The conversation on juvenile justice reform continued (HB132), and there was increased focus to ensure that schools have the resources to support our children, rather than solely disciplining them for behavior that is often indicative of larger issues in their lives. Unfortunately, legislators chose to defeat a measure to ensure that all Utah workers enjoy the same workplace protections through Utah labor laws, regardless of business size (HB283). But we are hopeful that a bill that did pass — HB30 — will lead to an improved process for employers and employees alike.

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While it is difficult to find an economic policy win for women and girls this year, it was an encouraging session for starting important conversations. Multiple proposals received committee hearings, and diverse perspectives were heard on issues from paid family leave and pay parity to tax relief that specifically impacts women in our state and early childhood services for working families trying to make ends meet. The Salt Lake Chamber led the way by highlighting paid family leave and access to affordable child care as a 2018 legislative priority, with other chambers across the state also supporting these critical workforce issues. We’re excited to continue this collaboration with the business community and policymakers, and we’re committed to figuring out what works for both employers and employees. Our growing Utah economy depends on it.

How did the Utah Legislature fare in the “the year of the woman?” I’d give it a B-. But in building relationships, starting conversations and opening minds — the true measure of strong policy development that is many years in the making — I’ll go for a solid A. Let’s aim for straight-A’s next year.