Female state legislators navigate Utah politics

Editor’s note: This pairs with a sidebar story headlined “Campus and local groups prepare women for a future in politics”.

Utah Reps. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, and Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, are finding their way over the hurdles of being two of just 20 women in the state’s 104-person legislature.

Women usually hesitate to begin a career in politics, Chavez-Houck said. Research by the Utah Women and Leadership Project backs this up — women generally need to be nudged to run for office.

“We as women have a tendency to overthink: do I have all of the appropriate credentials to run for office?” Chavez-Houck said. “And men just don’t do that generally. They’re interested in doing it, they step forward and they run.”

Susan Madsen, who founded and directs the Utah Women and Leadership Project, said women don’t only criticize themselves — they criticize each other, too.

“Women are very critical of other women here, I think in Utah County specifically,” Madsen said.

Edwards faced doubts about her qualifications when she launched her campaign for the 2008 election.

Edwards spent some time in the workforce after earning double master’s degrees in social work and marriage and family therapy from BYU. She then spent the next chapter of her life as a stay-at-home mom before running for office.

“When I first put my hat in the ring, there were a lot of people that kind of looked at me and said, ‘Well, you’re not coming from the business community. How could you possibly understand issues like transportation or taxes . . .?'” Edwards said. “I just thought, ‘Wow, that was a real disparagement of the variety of experiences that women have that, I think, inform their perspective on the issues.'”

Rather than discouraging her, Edwards said it galvanized her to win, and when she did, to focus on getting to know the issues “really, really well.”

Edwards said she’s not an expert on any issue. She said she knows there’s someone who knows almost every issue better than she does somewhere among the 40,000 people she was elected to represent. So she opens her doors — literally — to her constituents.

Edwards holds what she calls “Bagels and Briefings” in her living room every Saturday morning during the legislative sessions. She updates constituents on what went on during the week and opens up the floor for their questions and comments.

Madsen said a problem for many Utah women is they “cannot see a life of integration,” describing an all-in mentality.

“It’s all or nothing. It’s ‘or’ instead of ‘and,'” Madsen said. “‘I can do motherhood or I can do college. I can do motherhood or I can run for public office,’ instead of ‘I can be a mom and I can, in a flexible way, also serve my community and use my voice.'”

Envisioning a life of integration is no problem for Edwards’ daughter Jayne Edwards, who Becky Edwards said was one of her best campaigners as an eighth-grader. Jayne is a BYU public relations student with high aspirations for her political life.

“I don’t think being a mom and getting a higher education or having a career cancel each other out,” Jayne was quoted in a March 30 BYU Women’s Services and Resources Facebook post. “I want to run for office one day. I think that sometimes people think I’m kidding. I will say that I’d like to be president of the United States, and it’s not a joke. I’m going to be a change-maker.”

From right: BYU junior Jayne Edwards shadows her mom, Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, at the Utah Legislature on Monday, March 6, 2017. (Facebook Becky Edwards)

Chavez-Houck has taken another route to promote female involvement in Utah politics. She served as assistant minority whip from 2012 to 2014 and minority whip from 2014 to 2016.

She intentionally stepped down from her leadership spot this year to usher in new women for party leadership: Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City.

Madsen said she’s seen more women leaders stepping down to give a leadership spot to another woman in recent years.

Chavez-Houck said since the Democrats are the minority party in the Utah Legislature, formal leadership opportunities are few and far between. Democrats can’t serve as chairs or vice chairs of most standing and appropriations committees.

“I feel that it’s important for those of us that have been serving for a while to open those doors up for emerging leadership in our own caucus,” Chavez-Houck said.

Chavez-Houck said she felt especially inclined to mentor the two representatives into leadership because they were women, and capable ones. Edwards said she admires Chavez-Houck for the move.

“It’s an incredibly generous way to go about your service and really realizing that you need to create a legacy, and the fact that she’s doing that for (other women) is pretty special,” Edwards said.

Both Edwards and Chavez-Houck pointed to committee meetings as a downside of being the outnumbered gender in the House.

Edwards said offering her perspective on women’s issues like the gender wage gap in a committee meeting can seem like it falls flat.

“You bring that up in settings that are predominantly male, and they look at that issue from their own perspective,” Edwards said. “It’s challenging. Do I ever feel not heard though? No. I do feel respected. I do feel listened to and heard.”

Chavez-Houck said one of her biggest problems is not being able to be in two places at once — in one committee presenting a bill and representing a woman’s perspective in another.

“The frustration is there aren’t enough of us up there to be able to bring those issues to light,” Chavez-Houck said. “The opportunity is that when we are there, we can articulate how policy will affect Utahns because we’ve seen it through those eyes of women that are making those decisions in their daily lives for themselves and for their families.”

Utah has 20 female legislators. This map shows the number of female legislators compared to total seats in each U.S. state. Color indicates percentage of female legislators, with deeper red representing fewer women and deeper green depicting more, based on statistics from the National Conference of State Legislatures. (Zoe Woolf McGinn)

According to Edwards, an upside to being few in numbers is bipartisan cooperation and hard work.

“I do feel a sense of . . . natural collaboration with my female colleagues that goes across Republican and Democratic lines,” Edwards said.

Edwards referred to the Martha Hughes Cannon Caucus — a caucus for all current and former female Utah legislators and named for a female Utah senator who beat her husband in an 1896 election — as an example.

“It was a group of women, Democrats and Republicans together, who sat down and said, ‘Let’s just hammer this out. Let’s get this thing done,'” Edwards said. “And that’s what I see a lot from the women in the Utah State Legislature — just a real willingness to sit down and say, ‘Let’s just get this work done.'”

Zoe Woolf McGinn

Zoe McGinn is a journalism student at Brigham Young University. She dreams of working for This American Life in New York City in the future.

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