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Panelists say more women are needed in political office

Utah lags behind other states in the number of women politicians; some blame the local culture.

First Published Sep 03 2014 08:39 pm • Last Updated Sep 04 2014 09:04 am

Utah and the nation would benefit and government would be more balanced and better reflect the population if more women were wiling to seek public office. Butfew are willing to take the plunge — especially in Utah, according to a panel of female candidates for Congress and politicos.

"[People] come at this thinking it’s really important because we want equality, we want fairness … we want to be alike," said Natalie Gochnour, associate dean at the University of Utah business school, who worked under Gov. Mike Leavitt.

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"The standpoint I come at this from is we’re very different and that’s why it’s important," she said. "You have to have those masculine and feminine values coming together in the public square to represent all those things that are important to us."

But obstacles remain, according to those who have sought office.

Donna McAleer, a Democrat running for Congress in Utah’s 1st District, said often women aren’t asked to run, they feel tied to their families and it’s hard to win. "Women often run for an issue and men run for a title," she said.

Mia Love, who was mayor of Saratoga Springs and is again running for Congress in Utah’s 4th District, said women hold themselves to a higher standard, seeing their shortcomings rather than qualities more often than men do, and they need to stop.

"Step 1: Stop being so hard on yourself. Do not think you have to check 100 percent of the boxes in order to be qualified to do the job," Love said. "Step 2: Stop being so hard on other women. Too often we feel like if we’re not qualified to do the job, we can’t send someone else like us to do the job."

State Sen. Luz Robles, a Democrat running in the 2nd District, echoed that sentiment.

"We tend to be harder on ourselves," Robles said. "We have insituted as a part of our culture this idea that a woman, to be able to get somewhere, she’d better be able to prove herself three times more than her [male] counterparts."

When Love ran in 2012, she was told frequently she wasn’t qualified enough. But she spent six years on the Saratoga Springs City Council and four years as mayor — more experience than the rest of Utah’s federal delegation, except for Rep. Rob Bishop.


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"Let’s face it: We do live in an area that marginalizes women," Love said. "This is not an experience issue, it’s a gender issue and it’s offensive and it’s not just offensive to me but it’s offensive to every single woman whose vote you’re trying to earn out there."

Sarah Nitta, who ran for the state House in 2012, said women put a lot on the line when they run and often have little support.

"I think what would make a tremendous impact on our state is if we started celebrating strong women as women," Nitta said. "There is nothing in this state that incentivizes a woman to be strong and opinionated."

Susan Madsen, a researcher at Utah Valley University, has studied how Utah compares to the rest of the nation in terms of women holding elected office — and the numbers aren’t good.

Seventeen percent of the representatives and senators in the Utah Legislature are women, compared to nearly a quarter nationally. None of the top statewide officeholders in Utah are women, while women hold about a 23 percent of those positions nationally. And only 7 percent of Utah mayors are female, and most of them are in charge of small towns, compared to 17 percent across the country.

Madsen said it’s important to have women in those positions, because it means government can represent the entire population. And, Madsen said, women tend to be more concerned about health care, the needs of the poor and children.

"The bottom line about the research I do and what it really lays out — and not to say ‘shame on Utah’ — is it’s to try to get people uncomfortable, because if people aren’t uncomfortable they’re not going to change," said Madsen.

There isn’t good data on why women make up such a small percentage of Utah officeholders, but she hypothesizes that it is, at least in part, a cultural issue among Utah’s predominant Mormon population.

"I lot of women don’t see that as the role of women, to be active in society," said Madsen, who is LDS. "I know the doctrine of my church well and I believe that is the role of women."

The benefit, the panelists agreed, is that women bring a different perspective and different skills to setting policy. Nitta said women are more likely to have volunteered at a school, attended a PTA meeting, or taken a child to the doctor.

McAleer, an Army veteran, said she first ran for office because of commitment to try to reform the military system and try to put an end to rape in the armed forces. But women are also more likely to be sensitive to issues like gun control, health care and reproductive rights.

"There is a lack of balance in our dialogue and conversation," said Robles. "The tone changes and finding the solutions to the problem changes when you have one of our women legislators at the table."



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