As the legislative session came to a close this month, Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, pointed to a mural on the north wall of the Utah House Chamber depicting the historic scene of Seraph Young casting a vote in a Salt Lake City election in 1870.
Young, a niece of Brigham Young, reportedly became the first woman to legally vote in the United States.
Wilcox was praising Utah’s first woman speaker, Rep. Becky Lockhart, who was presiding over her last session. He called her a “trailblazer” and a leader, saying he brought his daughter to the final night of the session so she could see the Madam Speaker wielding the gavel.
Lockhart is one of five women leaving the Utah Legislature — nearly a third of the female members. And the odds may be stacked against recouping that loss in the November election, let alone making significant gains in the number of women lawmakers.
At the close of the 2014 session, the state noted as a territorial pioneer in women’s voting rights (following only Wyoming in passing women’s suffrage) ranks near the bottom in the nation (No. 45) for its percentage of female legislators, according to Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics.
Lockhart, who made history by taking the speaker’s chair in 2010, said initially she was uncomfortable with the attention she received for it.
“When I was running for speaker, it was never about ‘Utah needs a woman speaker,’ ” Lockhart said. “It was about my leadership style and what I was willing to offer to the body and the direction I would take. All the attention that came about being the first woman speaker was a little much.”
But now, after 16 years in the House and four years as speaker, Lockhart says she has “come to terms” with the notion that her leadership as a Republican woman is significant. Other women and young girls look to her as an example, she said, adding that the five women leaving the Legislature is a loss for the state.
A different perspective • The House is also losing its counterpart to Lockhart, Minority Leader Rep. Jennifer Seelig. The Salt Lake City Democrat is leaving the Legislature after eight years to pursue a doctorate. While rejecting stereotypes, she said women do bring different perspectives than men to lawmaking and that causes them to push different types of legislation.
Joining Lockhart and Seelig in giving up their seats are three others among the Legislature’s 17 women: Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, and Reps. Janice Fisher, D-West Valley City, and Ronda Rudd Menlove, R-Garland.
Menlove, who has served in the House since 2005 and has announced she will not run again, believes women tend to be more sensitive to social issues. She said she is the only Republican who has ever specifically asked to be on the House Health and Human Services Committee.
Last year, Menlove passed a law for children with Cytomegalovirus, a virus that causes hearing loss like that which affects her granddaughter Daisy.
Over their years of service, each of the five departing legislators has passed significant laws in areas specifically affecting women. Seelig passed legislation this year to create a commission to meet the needs of women in Utah’s economy. Throughout her career, Fisher focused on bills to help disadvantaged populations and Jones tackled health issues for women, including regulating tanning salons.
“It would be tragic not to grow the numbers of women up here — not just because half of the population is women but because we have different kinds of life experiences,” said Jones, who started her 14-year legislative tenure in the House before being elected to the Senate in 2006. “There are many pieces of legislation where women have more personal knowledge and can give a different perspective.”
Seelig sees the issue as one of elected officials reflecting the electorate.
“I don’t look at this as a quota system,” Seelig said. “I look at it as a representative government and if we hope to be the best we can be as a community, we need to capitalize on the strengths of all its members. Right now we’re not doing that.”
Breaking down barriers • At least one of the five seats being vacated will be filled by a man because no woman has filed to run. Another is likely to go to a male candidate based on party preference.
Women could make up that ground and even increase their numbers, depending on how the elections go, but the odds are heavily against it. Out of the 249 total legislative candidates filing to run by Thursday’s deadline, only 55 — 22 percent — are women.
While women still make up a majority in the small Democratic caucus (11 of 19) , just six of the 85 Republican legislators are women. The departures of Lockhart and Menlove leave just two women Republican incumbents in the House, at the same time only 11 of the 43 women running for the House are members of the dominant GOP.
This trend is fairly recent. GOP women in Utah’s Legislature matched or exceeded the number of Democratic women for most of the past decade, according to Rutgers Center for Women and Politics. But 2009 saw an upturn in women Democrats being elected, even as the Democratic caucus in the Capitol shrank.
Fisher, a 10-year legislative veteran who previously served 16 years on the West Valley City Council, will certainly be replaced by a man. None of the three candidates is female.
Still, “We have a good balance on the Democratic side,” she said, pointing to the much wider disparity in the GOP caucus. “I would hope that some Republican women would step up and say, ‘I can do this.’ ”
Lindsay Zizumbo is co-founder of Real Women Run, an organization that provides networking and training help for women interested in running for office.
Women in Utah are less likely than other places to make the jump from personal or career life to a life of politics. Raising children takes up time for many moms, she says, and women aren’t as apt to enjoy the rigors of campaigning and of holding office.
Images of leadership • “Women feel less qualified because they compare themselves not to a candidate holding current local office, but something entirely different, like comparing themselves to Mitt Romney,” Zizumbo said. “I don’t think the news cycle is portraying what lawmaking is like behind the scenes.”
Menlove spoke of a defining moment early in her career when a teaching job she applied for was given to a male who had less experience. “I’ve tried to be myself, genderless — not using gender as a barrier or as an asset. And that has served me well. I’ve had great relationships working alongside men,” she said.
But Utah’s female legislators say they have hardly felt inferior to men in their political careers, and haven’t had much negative experience. While some women may feel timid about entering a political arena dominated by men, Seelig said images of leadership are designed by those already in these roles.
That’s why Seelig and others from both parties work with Real Women Run.
Many women, Zizumbo says, need to be asked to run the first time. That confirms the experiences of Jones and Menlove, who each said she was repeatedly urged to run before finally jumping in.
And the idea that a woman can’t make it in the rough-and-tumble world of politics? Seelig says that notion needs to disappear.
“I reject the premise that women don’t want to be aggressive. If you were to ask anyone in the House about me or Speaker [Lockhart], you would get a mouthful,” she said. “A lot of times people aren’t expecting it and so it’s a little bit disarming. But I’ve never backed down from a fight.”