Women react to gender disparity in Utah politics

Chuck Burton
First Lady Michelle Obama hugs 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during a campaign rally in Winston-Salem, N.C. on Oct. 27, 2016. Clinton was the first female presidential nominee of a major political party in the United States. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

BYU student Alexis Cooper was optimistic about Hillary Clinton’s chances as Election Day approached. When Donald Trump triumphed with 306 electoral votes, Cooper was heavyhearted.

“It wasn’t just that my candidate didn’t win,” Cooper said. “The election showed me that about 50 percent of America was OK with a man saying really hateful and hurtful things, and they would vote for him over someone who didn’t.”

Cooper, a registered Republican, said she voted for Clinton on both policy and principle.

“Here’s this woman who didn’t run a campaign on hate and didn’t say all of this nasty stuff, and America voted for someone who doesn’t respect my gender at all,” Cooper said. “To have a woman to be the opposite of him, it was important and it was powerful.”

A local problem

Women make up half of the U.S. population, but account for only about 20 percent of the seats in Congress, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.

Utah ranks 47th out of the 50 states for women’s representation in elected office, according to Representation 20/20, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for equal gender representation in politics.


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(Graphic by Hannah McCulloch via Google Maps)

BYU political science professor Jessica Preece has spent much of her career studying women’s underrepresentation in politics.

“It matters because we want a representative body that sort of looks like and has experiences that are similar to the broader population,” Preece said. “A legislative body that is more diverse and has better descriptive representation is likely to do a better job at covering issues and policy and behaving in a way that reflects the broader interests.”

Preece said when few women hold elected office, it sends a message that politics is “a man’s game.”

“Symbolically, there’s meaning to having a more representative body because it sends the message that women are an important part of decision-making,” Preece said.

The comparatively low proportion of women in elected office in Utah may have something to do with the culture in the state, according to Preece. She said LDS culture can sometimes lead to assumptions that a woman who is ambitious isn’t prioritizing family.

“That rests on a fundamental assumption that women in particular can only do one thing,” Preece said.

Ambition is not inconsistent with family values, Preece said.

“I think that the kinds of people who care about this world and care about problems in the world and want to try to solve them are actually the same kind of people that are going to care deeply about their children and their children’s schools and their wards and their families,” Preece said.

She said people at BYU can encourage more women to run for political office by valuing women’s ambition.

“There’s nothing wrong with being supportive, but there’s also nothing wrong with being in charge,” Preece said.

Conflicting views

Lack of representation is the reason Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, decided to run for office.

“I felt that we did not have a representative democracy in that there just was not very much either gender parity or ethnic diversity up on the hill,” Chavez-Houck said.

She, too, found Clinton’s loss to be discouraging.

“I think we’ve been kind of set back on our heels,” Chavez-Houck said. “I feel that given what we’ve seen with the presidential election, it’s hard to say on one hand any young girl should feel that she can grow up to be president; … that you will be judged accordingly and fairly and equitably when we went through what we went through these last few months.”

Chavez-Houck said she believes the loss will discourage women from running for office in the future.

“It makes it really hard to show women that the playing field is level and equitable and fair because it’s not,” Chavez-Houck said. “When you’re facing that as a candidate, it’s going to be hard to convince women to do that. You sacrifice so much.”

On the other hand, Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, said she doesn’t believe women specifically face barriers in running for office.

“I don’t think there should be any perception that there’s a glass ceiling for women,” Coleman said. “We have women in our state that have held every known position.”

Coleman said she thinks it was exciting to have a female presidential candidate, but that Clinton was not the right candidate.

“We haven’t seen a woman hold the presidential office, but to me, it’s a matter of time to see the right candidate who is female that I can support,” Coleman said.

Utah County Republican Party Secretary Kristen Chevrier said she prefers to focus on candidates’ qualifications rather than their gender or race.

“I have been encouraged to run for public office many times by party leaders and feel confident that I would have the support of the (Utah County Republican Party) if I chose to do so,” Chevrier said.

Looking forward

Chavez-Houck said the more women who run for office, the more normal it will become for women to hold elected office. She believes more women should both run for office and support other women who run for office.

“We’re going to have to open the doors for (women) and we’re going to have to cultivate an embracing environment that actually makes that happen for them,” Chavez-Houck said.

Cooper sees Clinton’s loss as a sign that more women need to get involved in politics. Cooper is even considering running for office herself.

“Having her win would have been groundbreaking,” Cooper said. “It would have been an incredible opportunity. The fact that she didn’t doesn’t mean it’s never going to happen, but it just means the battle isn’t over.”

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