Utah women have a long history of civic engagement. In 1870, 50 years before the United States would pass the 19th Amendment granting women suffrage, the Utah legislature passed a bill giving all women the right to vote. This made Utah the second territory in the nation to grant women suffrage, and Utah women became the first to vote because of the timing of elections.
Since 1870, Utah women’s participation in politics has ebbed and flowed. Research conducted by the Utah Women and Leadership Project investigated the patterns of women’s involvement in politics and finds meaning in its nuances.
In a recent research snapshot published by the Utah Women & Leadership Project, women’s voter turnout over the past couple of decades was broken down. In 1992, Utah women had the highest voter turnout in the nation. However, by 2006 they had dropped to 51st place. Turnout increased in 2018, and then dropped again in 2020, ranking Utah as 11th in the country.
“Our ranking has gone down, but our amount of voting has gone up,” said Susan Madsen, director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project. “The percentages show that the percentage of women who are voting went up, it just went up even more in other states.”
While Utah consistently ranks top in the nation for women’s involvement in community service and civic engagement at a school and community level, it continues to rank below the national average for women who participate in leadership roles, the research states.
“Women want to be engaged in terms of service and volunteerism and helping their kids in the schools, but we struggle with women using their voices in ways that are more what you would term ‘leadership roles’, and so we still struggle with that element,” Madsen said.
There are many possible reasons as to why Utah is facing this phenomenon of having women missing from the upper levels of political discourse and activity, but one significant contributor could be the religious culture of the state, she said.
“It’s more of a cultural thing. People grow up seeing men leaders and men take leadership roles in (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and in the community, and then girls and young women grow up and see their mothers not, and so they think that’s not the role of women,” Madsen said.
The culture among members of the Church may lead to some women feeling as if there is not a place for them in the political sphere, but Church doctrine teaches the exact opposite, Madsen said.
Former president of the Church Gordon B. Hinckley once said “You can include in the dream of the woman you would like to be a picture of one qualified to serve society and make a significant contribution to the world of which she will be a part.”
Madsen emphasized the difference between actual Church teachings and Church culture.
“There is this tension between the two. If you look at the teachings (of the Church) and what is encouraged by Church leaders, it really is men and women in political roles that need to step forward,” Madsen said.
Pat Jones is the CEO of the Women’s Leadership Institute headquartered in Salt Lake City and served on the Utah State Legislature for 14 years. Jones is on her seventh year of conducting the Women’s Leadership Conference, a yearly gathering where women from all political ideologies gather to learn how to become better leaders and political advocates.
Despite Utah’s lack of female representation in leadership roles, Jones has seen a large increase in women who are interested in running for office.
“The Trump administration offended a lot of women, and brought a lot of women from both sides of the political aisle to the realization that we need women’s voices at the table,” Jones said. “Women finally see themselves as being at the table instead of setting the table. Utah women are saying, ‘Why not me?'”
Jones noted that the dominance of the Republican Party may be a contributing factor in less women running for office in Utah. Research from Duke University shows that Democratic women are more likely to run for leadership positions than their Republican counterparts.
“I think it’s difficult to get Republican women to want to run, and I think it’s been difficult in Utah, in particular. I have to literally go out and recruit Republican women for the most part,” Jones said. “It’s just been the system that they have to go through the convention, and typically older, white men are the ones that run that.”
With voter turnout increasing and more women from all political perspectives participating in the political process, BYU students can also get involved in civic engagement.
Running for office is the best leadership development experience someone can have, Jones said. She encourages women to participate in the Women’s Leadership Institute’s political development series and to get involved.
“Read a lot! Go up to the legislature and attend some of the meetings that you’re interested in. And run! Run for city council, for school board. Prepare, work on campaigns,” Jones said.
Madsen also encouraged women to get out there and vote, but not without doing their research first.
“We need to start paying attention and increase our awareness, especially before voting. We need to become more informed, so then we can know what to care about. Becoming informed voters is the place to start,” Madsen said.