Robert Gehrke: Like the mural in their honor, the history of Utah women should evolve toward inclusiveness

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

I suppose everyone’s a critic.

So it comes as no surprise that when Zions Bank partnered with world-renowned artist Jann Haworth — co-creator of the Beatles’ iconic “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album cover — to design a massive mural in downtown Salt Lake City, people were going to talk.

It’s a bold project, featuring portraits of more than 250 Utah women, a cross section of the state’s cultural and social history.

It’s exciting to see my wonderful friends like Mary Malouf and former Salt Lake Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce alongside people I consider heroes like Barbara Toomer and Jeanetta Williams, and icons like Martha Hughes Cannon.

It reflects the diverse faces — particularly a refreshing number of Indigenous women — who have left a mark on the state in a broad cross section of disciplines.

Of course, people will quibble with some of the omissions. I would have loved, for example, to see Christine Durham, the state’s first female Supreme Court justice, included. Likewise, Dr. Kristen Ries, who did groundbreaking work caring for HIV/AIDS patients. Or how about Ruth Evans, who opened Ruth’s Diner in the midst of the Great Depression?

The mural also comes up short in its political diversity. Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, that woke champion of womanhood, was actually the first to point out some of the Republican women who weren’t included. Former Rep. Mia Love echoed his sentiments.

“Choosing not to recognize many notable women from our state who shattered the glass ceiling just because they had an R behind their name really undermines the message the mural claims to care about,” Love tweeted Friday. Love, for example, is the first Black Republican woman ever elected to Congress.

Of the more than a dozen politicians, two — former Gov. Olene Walker and current first lady Jeanette Herbert — are Republicans.

Haworth contends that she was trying to balance the mural, drawing on all walks of life, not just politics — and I respect that goal and support it.

Tribune columnist Holly Richardson offered a long list of Republican women who could have been included, like Love or former Rep. Enid Mickelsen. If you really wanted to start a fight, you could make the case for including Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka.

But it’s the omission of Becky Lockhart, the only female Utah House speaker, that seems most glaring.

Lockhart was conservative to her core, and I didn’t often agree with her on issues. But she was keenly aware of her position as a role model to the next generation of female leaders.

“There’s something to the visual, the actually seeing a woman as the speaker,” she told me the last time we spoke before she died from a rare degenerative brain disorder. “There’s something powerful to that, because other young women and girls say, ‘I can do that because I’ve actually seen one.’ "

In that last interview, I noticed something else on her desk I hadn’t before — a set of brass balls.

There is potentially some room to fix the mural — although, printed as it is on long sheets suspended on the side of the building, rather than painted on the brick, I don’t pretend to know what that would take.

Two women appear twice in the ensemble — Martha Hughes Cannon and Dr. Rebecka Meyers, a talented surgeon. There are two blank heads, an unknown child, the fictitious “Zoe The Riveter,” and Calamity Jane, who lived in Utah for about two years in her teens before moving to Wyoming.

And there’s no rule the mural of 250 women — which by my count actually includes 262 women, a sea gull and a dog named Nora — needs to have a ceiling, glass or otherwise.

At the same time, who is or isn’t on a mural is not exactly the most important issue women are facing.

Last week, a national study ranked Utah last in the nation when it comes to equality for women. It’s the third year in a row the state has ranked last.

Utah lagged behind other states in the number of women who hold leadership positions in businesses and those who hold elected office. We have the largest gap between men and women when it comes to educational attainment and work hours. And the state ranked 48th when it came to the income disparity between men and women.

Attempts to remedy the situation have been repeatedly blocked by, you guessed it, the Republican, male-dominated Legislature.

Attempts to get paid parental leave — something even President Donald Trump says he supports — have been repeatedly torpedoed. As my colleague, Becky Jacobs reported, a bill that would have prohibited employers from asking about past salary history — a line of questioning that often disadvantages women — didn’t get a committee hearing.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, couldn’t get Republican leaders to pay a paltry amount to study if there is a gender gap among state employee salaries.

Clearly, we have a problem. And what it will take to fix it is worrying less about getting women like Lockhart on murals and worrying more about getting strong leaders like her elected and into positions where they can help make our state more inclusive and equal. But, frankly, we can and should do both.