Women underrepresented across Utah’s political spectrum

July 25, 2016
FILE - In this Feb. 18, 2015, file photo, Mia Love, center foreground, Utah's newest member of Congress, speaks to members of the Utah House during an annual appearance before the Legislature in Salt Lake City. Utah has never had a female U.S. senator and only four women have served in the U.S. House of Representatives, including Rep. Love, who now serves along with three men holding the remaining congressional jobs. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah elected the nation’s the first female state senator in 1896, when Martha Hughes Cannon defeated her husband and four other candidates to win the job.

But 120 years later, the Utah state Legislature is among those with the lowest percentages of women, in part because of the state’s influential Mormon culture emphasizing women as mothers and homemakers.

Women make up half the state’s population, but only 16 of 104 lawmakers are female in Utah’s state Senate and House of Representatives.

That means women account for 15 percent of the Legislature — making Utah the eighth lowest in the country and one of 16 states that now has fewer female state lawmakers than it did in 2005, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of data collected by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In the neighboring states of Colorado and Arizona, about four out of every 10 state lawmakers are women — among the top three highest rates in the United States.

Utah’s female elected office underrepresentation isn’t limited to the state Legislature.

Since it became a state in 1896, Utah has had just one female governor — Republican Olene Smith Walker.

The Beehive State has never had a female U.S. senator. Only four women have served in the U.S. House of Representatives, including Rep. Mia Love, who now serves along with three men holding the remaining congressional jobs.

Utah women in politics say professional and societal dynamics limit their numbers because the state is deeply influenced by Mormon culture that encourages women to stay at home and raise children.

Kathleen Anderson of Bountiful, president of Utah Federation of Republican Women, said girls in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are taught from an early age that their greatest calling is to be mothers.

Entering politics “is a tremendous financial sacrifice, time sacrifice, and away-from-home sacrifice, so if your priorities are to be an integral part of that family unit, it’s asking a huge sacrifice,” said Anderson, who is a member of the LDS Church.

Women who leave careers to stay at home and raise children and then later want to re-start their careers are not always well-received by employers, she added.

That could leave women questioning their accomplishments and whether they’d be qualified for like public office, Anderson said.

Utah women also have few politicians to emulate, making them less likely to aspire to run for office, said Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, one of Utah’s three female mayors for the state’s 246 cities and towns.

But Utah women should “realize their voices and their perspectives are missing from the conversation, and that creates decision-making that isn’t necessarily the best for everyone,” Biskupski said.

Biskupski, a Democrat who has also served in Utah’s Legislature, said women may absorb media messages that judge females based on their looks instead of their accomplishments, which could discourage them from stepping into the sometimes harsh political spotlight. “It takes a very tough skin to endure what you go through as an elected official,” Biskupski said.

Biskupski works with Real Women Run, a nonpartisan group trying to get more Utah women involved in politics. Part of that involves convincing women they can take on public service while being dedicated to home life at the same time, Biskupski said.

Anderson said it’s important to get more women elected, but that’s not going to happen if the push is based solely on a need for more female representation in politics. “I think we need to do better at identifying that she is the better candidate, rather than, we need equal representation,” Anderson said.

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