By TERESSA GENETTI-SCOTT
With the opening of the 1999 Utah legislative session, five new congresswomen have taken their seats, giving women the highest number of congressional seats they have ever held in Utah.
Both the Utah House and Senate increased the number of female seat-holders. The Senate jumped from one to four representatives to 17.
“After elections we added three new women senators to the one already in office. I think we will see a different kind of Senate,” said Dan Jones, a Salt Lake City political pollster. He said he expects the Senate to focus on more women-oriented issues like education and domestic violence.
Jones, who has dubbed the 1990s the “gender decade,” said he is not surprised the number of women in the Utah politcal arena has increased. He said the 1990s has been a time when the transition of women into politics has been the most noticeable.
“On the national level, you can really see the impact of the women in the Clinton adminisration. I think that has a lot to do with Hillary,” Jones said.
While women still make up a small percentage of the House and Senate, Jones said he expects many of these women will move into leadership positions because of the quality of women legislators in Utah is very high.
“Women take their role very seriously. I’ve never been to a meeting where one of the women legislators is not prepared. I look for women to take more of the leadership,” said Jones, who follows the legislature closely.
Tammy Rowan, R-Orem, has been a member of the Utah House since 1996. She said the caliber of women legislators is high because many of the women do not run until they feel qualified.
“Women feel like they have to have all their ducks in a row. A guy can never have done anything in politics before and not even sweat running. Women are more careful,” she said.
“Women take their role very seriously. I’ve never been to a meeting where one of the women legislators is not prepared. I look for women to take more of the leadership.”
— Dan Jones, Salt Lake City political pollster
Rowan said she spent 18 years as a volunteer in the Republican party before she decided to run for office.
“I ended up as the legislative district chair, and when my seat was finally open, it was part of my job to find good people. It wasn’t until then that it occurred to me that I could do this,” Rowan said.
Rowan received support to run for office from Utah County organization called Women in Leadership. When the organization was first started in 1993, Utah County had no female legislators. Six years later, four females now represent Utah County in the House, and each has been affiliated with the organization.
Orem City Councilwoman Judy Bell helped to start Women in Leadership to encourage women through mentoring and support to run for office, regardless of political affiliation. The group also encourages women to serve in appointed government positions.
“When we ask them to consider running, a common response it, ‘Why me? I’m not qualified.’ Yet they are. When they get elected, they are very good,” Bell said.
She said the goal of the organization is not to make government 50-50 male/female but rather to bring the female perspective to the table.
“We were never interested in control. We just believe that we need everyone at the table,” she said.
Bell said many women just need someone to teach them how to run an honorable campaign.
“When I ran for office, I started out with no idea of what I was supposed to do. I signed up, and it was like, ‘What do I do?’ For me it was like running naked down State Street,” Bell said.
Megahn Holbrook, chairwoman of the Democratic State Committee, said her party has worked hard to encourage more women to run for office.
“I think it is significant to note that Utah had the first [state] senator, Martha Hughes Cannon, and until the past election we had not increased that number,” said Holbrook, who is the first female elected chair for either the Republican or Democratic party in Utah.
Holbrook said one of the most important factors in encouraging women to run has been examples from women already in leadership roles. She cited Jan Graham, Utah’s attorney general and Olene Walker Utah’s lieutenant governor as examples.
“I think to see women in leadership and government that are articulate and effective is invaluable,” Holbrook said.
The Utah Republican party does not solicit females to run for office, said Spencer Stokes, executive director for the Utah Republican party. He said the Republican party has typically stayed away from targeting any segments of the population.
“I don’t believe in theory that people go up there and vote male and female. Legislation doesn’t break down as male and female. No matter what their background, legislators should do what is best for their constituents,” he said.
Loretta Baca, D-Salt Lake City, said she disagrees. She said it is important to encourage under-represented groups to run so the state legislature will be representative of Utah.
One of the important elements in her decision to run was encouragement from the Utah Women’s lobby, an organization of both men and women that picks bills that affect the health and safety of men, women and children.
“They were the ones who taught me how to run and how to get involved. They didn’t just tell me. You actually go visit the legislature and learn first-hand,” Baca said.
Baca said she has found women tend to shy away from running for the legislature because they feel they are inexperienced.
“All they need to do is to come and hear the people on the floor. You really don’t need that much experience, just knowledge,” Baca said.