On Feb. 14, 1870, Seraph Young, a schoolteacher from Salt Lake City, stopped on her way to school and cast a vote in her municipal election, becoming the first American woman to do so.
Utah has a rich history of women taking the stand as leaders. Utah is home to milestones such as the first woman elected to state Senate, Martha Hughes Cannon, and houses women’s rights advocates such as Emmeline B. Wells.
However, studies have ranked Utah last, or close to last, in terms of statewide gender equality, such as the research featured in a WalletHub study from this year. Utah women are actively seeking change through local, state and national leadership.
Local leadership matters
Kendalyn Harris is projected to be mayor of Bountiful, a city which, in its entire 166 years of existence, has never had a female mayor.
Harris is active in her community and has been a Bountiful City councilwoman for the past eight years. One of the things she is most proud of in her time in local government is her creation of a public comment period for city council meetings.
Harris said her opposition has consistently called her out, stating she is not strong enough for the role. “It’s interesting how people see strength,” she said.
Harris said that in her experience, people often conceptualize leaders as men. “If I am successful, I am excited to go into elementary schools, and allow them to visualize that a leader can be a woman,” Harris said.
Similarly, Katie Bunnell is a woman who is making great impacts in her Utah County community. Bunnell is the founder of the Live Your Dream Foundation, an organization based in Provo that offers monetary scholarships to single mothers looking to get an education.
“The biggest thing we are doing is giving women hope and helping them know that somebody believes in them,” Bunnell said.
Bunnell’s organization has provided 129 scholarships to single mothers so far, accumulating more than $200,000 in donations toward these scholarships. Proceeds from all fundraisers go to the cause of single mothers; none of Live Your Dream Foundation’s employees are paid.
Making a difference in the state
Utah women have an active voice in state politics as well. Elect Women Utah is a nonpartisan organization that seeks to inspire and provide resources to women who are looking to run for office in the state of Utah.
“Women are so great — so wise, so competent and are exactly the people I want to be making decisions about my most sensitive life issues,” said Sarah Brinton, CEO and founder of Elect Women Utah.
Elect Women Utah’s mission is to help Utah women feel confident about stepping forward for political service, as its mission statement describes. The group does this by inviting and cultivating candidates for political office through its website, events and social media.
“We need to help women see the ways in which they are already qualified (to run for office). You are already ready!” Brinton said.
The Utah ERA Coalition is another group seeking to promote women’s voices in Utah. The ERA, or Equal Rights Amendment, is a piece of legislation that was first proposed to Congress in 1923. It wasn’t until 1972 that a version of the amendment was passed by the Senate and sent to states for ratification, according to the Utah History Encyclopedia. The ERA would provide equal legal rights for all Americans regardless of sex, but it has not yet been ratified in Utah.
According to Kelly Whited Jones, founding member of the Utah ERA Coalition, the group’s mission is to follow the lead of the national ERA movement to raise awareness and gain congressional votes in support of the amendment.
In essence, the passage of the ERA has the power to help women on the federal level, allowing for a different level of scrutiny for sex discrimination cases, as women currently have to meet a higher legal standard to find justice, Whited Jones said.
“We need a dramatic shift in our state — it’s not enough to receive a breadcrumb here or there in terms of women’s equality. We don’t need small moves, we need a fundamental shift,” Whited Jones said. “As women start to take more of a lead in government roles, they invariably start to believe in and support the Equal Rights Amendment.”
Utah Women are shaking up the national Senate
Never before has Utah elected a woman to represent the state in the U.S. Senate, but two women are currently looking to change that.
Becky Edwards, who has strong ties to BYU, is currently campaigning for the November 2022 U.S. Senate election. Edwards previously was in office as a representative for the Utah Legislature.
Edwards is running with her mind toward her Utah constituency. “The reason for the political sphere is so that regular people can sit, work and reason together to make a better future,” she said.
Part of this future is Edward’s strong belief in the ideas of empowerment and inclusivity. During her time as a state leader, Edwards could see the women of Utah stand up for things they believe in.
One of the most stark examples of this came in 2018 when Edwards, with a girl scout troop, advocated for a statue of Martha Hughes Cannon to be erected in the U.S. Capitol.
The girl scout troop wrote letters to their representatives and campaigned to represent the history of women in Utah. The bill to erect this statue, sponsored by Edwards, was passed on Feb. 14, the anniversary of the first vote cast by Seraph Young.
“When the bill passed, those little girls stood up and cheered. They felt like their voice mattered, and they did,” Edwards said.
Ally Isom, a BYU alumna, is running for the national Senate because, in her words, “Utah needs leaders who include everyone at the table.”
Isom, who has recently served as Communications Director for former Gov. Gary Herbert and as Director of Family and Community Relations for the Church, is campaigning to get that work done on behalf of the state of Utah.
Through her leadership experience, Isom said she has seen the firsthand effects of inclusivity in the political sphere. She is excited to lead the “first truly global generation that rejects racism, misogyny and cultural practices that harm people,” she said. “We need an army of good people to change the course of our country.”
These women are just a few examples of the countless women that are paving the way in Utah. They want people to know that women offer a powerful voice in this changing world.
Audrey Perry Martin, founder of Project Elect, wants women to hearken back to the stories of the early pioneer women in Utah. “Don’t have fear about getting involved. They allowed their voices to be heard. Take that energy back,” she said.