When Utah’s newly elected lawmakers take the oath of office in January, it will be a historic occasion.

At no time in the state’s history have more women held legislative seats. Of Utah’s 104 lawmakers, 25 will be women. That’s 24 percent.

And yet Utah is still below the national average, which is 28.3 percent nationwide, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Still, this boost, from 20 percent last year, is being heralded as progress in a state that often ranks at or near the bottom on markers of gender equality and that has historically had lower-than-average representation of women in politics at many levels.

Erin Jemison, who works with Real Women Run, says the increase is encouraging, but she’s concerned about its partisan tilt, with 16 of the 25 female lawmakers being members of the minority party.

“It leans very Democratic,” she said. “And what we really want to see is ... specifically the other major party have more women in the pipeline. I think we hear from Republican women in Utah that that’s a challenge.”

Real Women Run is a Utah-based nonpartisan initiative that looks to increase the number of women involved in politics at all levels. This year, the organization worked with several of the seven newly elected women in the Legislature, said Jemison, who works for the YWCA.

Those five Democrats and two Republicans will take office as part of a record number of women who ran for and were elected to public office across the country. Among the history-making changes, Nevada became the first state to have a majority female Legislature.

Nationally, many were spurred on by the election of President Donald Trump; the #MeToo movement — a social media hashtag that demonstrated the scope and frequency of people’s experience with sexual assault, harassment and abuse; and the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh after three sexual misconduct allegations were made against him.

“It’s quite obvious that women are having some issues with President Trump and some of the policies that we’ve heard on the airwaves,” said Pat Jones, the CEO of the Women’s Leadership Institute and a former Democratic member of Utah’s Legislature.

Jones said it’s no coincidence her organization has had an increase in the number of women attending trainings since Trump’s election.

“I see women who are very sober and feel a huge responsibility to run for office, to serve in office,” she said. “I think a lot of women feel like it is now time for them to get involved because there’s this huge sense of responsibility that if they don’t do it, it’s not going to happen. They’re very worried about the direction that our country is going.”

But the new Utah lawmakers say their campaigns were a result of their passion for local issues, not a sign of their dissatisfaction with the national landscape.

A training ground

In both major parties, the number of women jumping into the political fray in Utah was up this year. But the number of Republican hopefuls in state and federal races still lagged behind Democrats, who had 29 candidates to their 49.

Not all of those candidates made it through party conventions, but 23 of the 55 women who made it on the ballot in their legislative races won. No women won on the federal level and the delegation’s only female, Rep. Mia Love, lost her bid for re-election to Democrat Ben McAdams.

It makes sense that Democrats would be more mobilized to run for office in the current national landscape, Jones said, and it’s true that women as a group are more likely to lean left. But that doesn’t capture the whole picture of why fewer Republican women run for office, she said.

“It’s from the bottom up and then from the top down that [women are] just not encouraged sufficiently to do it, and they have not built their pipeline of women,” Jones said of the Republican Party. “I think it’s a combination of many things, but the Republicans definitely have some work to do.”

State legislatures are often seen as training grounds for higher office. And with a smaller number of Republican women there in Utah, it’s likely the party will continue fielding fewer female candidates at the state and federal level.

But Republican women haven’t just struggled in Utah. Next year, nearly 68 percent of women in state legislatures will be Democrats and some 32 percent will be Republicans, according to preliminary post-election information compiled by the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

In a party that has increasingly shunned the politics of identity, Republican women and their party may be trying to avoid leaning into gender as a potential consideration, Jemison said.

“I hear from people on the more conservative side in Utah that there’s that concern that they don’t want to get quote unquote ‘dragged into identity politics,’” she said. “I think we need to do a better job of kind of explaining what we’re about. We’re trying to combat disparities that we see and break down barriers; we’re not trying to base everything on identity.”

Marsha Judkins, a newly elected Republican from Provo who was appointed to the seat vacated by Rep. Keith Grover this summer, said she would love to see more women running in her party but wasn’t sure why they weren’t stepping forward. After all, she said, she received nothing but support from voters and others in her party throughout her campaign.

“I know that the Republican Party is seen as more traditional in some ways with the values and relationships between men and women, and maybe that is a little discouraging or women don’t think about [running] as much or something,” she said. “But I don’t think there’s any kind of organized effort to suppress women.”

A collaborative community approach

As they prepare to take office, the new women coming to the Legislature told The Salt Lake Tribune that their main priorities include education, criminal-justice reform, health care accessibility and clean air.

“I am a mom and a medical doctor and really political office was not on my radar 10 years ago,” said Rep.-elect Suzanne Harrison, a Democrat who will represent the Sandy area and part of Draper. “But I found that the issues that really matter to my kids and my community and the families in my community were not getting the focus that I felt they needed in the Legislature.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep.-elect Suzanne Harrison, the newly elected House representative in District 32, who flipped the seat blue in this election, steps out of her role as an anesthesiologist at Riverton Hospital for a brief moment recently. Harrison says she'll bring important perspectives missing on Capitol Hill not only because of her gender but also because of her profession. The number of women in the Utah Legislature will reach a historic high in 2019 at 24 percent.

Like Harrison, many of the Legislature’s newly elected women said they view their experiences as mothers as an asset — it means they’ve spent time in classrooms and doctor offices and have considered how government decisions could affect their children’s futures.

“Women are used to seeing a bigger picture and considering the domino effect the decisions have on many people — especially the family and how that affects society,” said Melissa Garff Ballard, a House Republican from North Salt Lake. “And we, in general, listen first. Not always. But I think women tend to do that in understanding people’s needs.”

In addition to their personal experiences, the women also cite their professional backgrounds as value added to the Legislature. Stephanie Pitcher, a House Democrat who will represent Millcreek, Holladay and the Sugar House area, is a prosecutor for Davis County and said that will influence her efforts for criminal-justice reform. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, a House Democrat from Salt Lake City, serves as the executive director of the Utah Academy of Family Physicians, where she has lobbied for family medicine and primary care.

Three of the new female lawmakers are educators: Judkins, a Provo Republican, teaches in the Developmental Math Department at Utah Valley University; Kathleen Riebe, a Democrat who will represent Senate District 8, is an educational technology specialist in Granite School District; and LaWanna Shurtliff, an Ogden House Democrat, is a retired high school teacher. All said their experiences in the classroom will influence their votes on education.

Beyond their areas of expertise, the newly elected women in Utah hope that having more women at the table could influence the Legislature’s decisions broadly — and even the way they get made.

“There have been a lot of studies that just show women are more collaborative by nature,” Dailey-Provost said. “And what we really, really need right now is an increase in a collaborative attitude so that we can finally come together — not get so tied up in what our differences are but where our goals are common.”

Jones said the “historic” changes the Legislature will see next year could also make a real difference for the newly elected women, who may find strength in numbers. When Jones left the Senate in 2014, the Legislature was 84 percent male.

“When you have a committee where you have more than one woman — which was true for me in many cases, especially in the Senate — you will have women that are more likely to speak up,” she said. “You will have probably a more thoughtful approach to legislation that really is meaningful.”