Commentary: Utah women led suffrage movement, so where are our female officials?

Society works better when men and women are represented in equal measure.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) U.S. Senate candidates Ally Isom, left, and Becky Edwards.

More than 150 years ago, Seraph Young made history when she cast her ballot in Salt Lake City — the first American woman to vote. In 1896, after helping to put women’s enfranchisement into Utah’s Constitution when it was granted statehood that same year, Martha Hughes Cannon became the first woman to be a member of the Utah Senate.

With Utah sending delegates like Emmeline B. Wells to national suffrage conventions, where they rallied side by side with Susan B. Anthony, it seemed Utah would be an example to the world of what men and women, working together, could do for a society.

That vision has faded. Utah currently ranks dead last in WalletHub’s “Best and Worst States for Women’s Equality.” At the federal level, Utah has six seats in its national delegation: four representatives and two senators. Only four Utah women have served in Congress since its statehood, and Utah has never had a female U.S. senator.

At the national level, women make up 30% of statewide executive officers. Currently, Utah has only one woman executive, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson.

As of 2022, only 26.7% of the Utah House and 17.2% of the Utah Senate are women. Yet, in 2020, a record high 66.6% of registered women voted. Women are voting, but where is their representation? Researcher Pat Jones reveals that organizational performance increases when the male/female ratio of teams is closer to 50/50. Which makes us wonder, why aren’t we utilizing our capable women? Why are we moving forward without their critical insights and perspectives?

Susan R. Madsen, founder of the Utah Women & Leadership Project suggests, “Women are not socialized to see themselves as politicians or leaders, so they don’t aspire to or envision themselves in those roles much of their lives. Since we see mostly men in visible roles, we assume political roles are ‘male’ roles. Men are also more often encouraged by others to run for office, and women are not.”

In other words: To see more participation by women, we need to first consciously encourage and support that participation. Utah history demonstrates that capable women impact our society for the better. It is time Utah’s slow progress toward a more equal participation of men and women in government and politics is accelerated.

Increases in female leadership and voter turnout can propel our society to new heights. Washington County is a great example: Recent city elections resulted in the election of six female mayors out of 14, up from only three.

Each step forward creates a more representative and balanced government. Representative politics creates a political sample that reflects the demographic of the population and brings increased diversity, new perspectives, and additional experience that assists in finding creative solutions to the societal problems in our state and nation.

For instance, one study found that K-12 education was a top priority for women but ranked significantly lower for men. Representative government helps to attain a more balanced range of policies.

The June 28 primary election includes many capable candidates seeking to use their unique experiences and perspectives to benefit our state. Studies have shown that women prioritize policies and issues differently than men; this is precisely the reason we need women’s voices and opinions at all levels of government. Madsen suggests “when both men and women serve together in more equal numbers within communities, counties, and states, residents are better served and more likely to thrive.”

We need to be using every resource we have at our disposal, including the qualified men and women offering to serve. Are we carefully considering the women running in the primary election for local and state office? They bring unique perspectives and valid experience from fields such as law and social justice, municipal and state government, elementary and higher education, social work, and marriage and family therapy. There are candidates running for Southern Utah votes from all demographics who offer the experience and perspectives that can improve our state.

Candidates for federal office include Becky Edwards and Ally Isom running for the U.S. Senate and Tina Cannon, Darlene McDonald, Erin Rider and Cassie Easley running for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

We can only hold our elected officials responsible for fulfilling their duty if we are fulfilling our duty to make informed votes. Click on the links above or visit vote.utah.gov to learn more about the experience and qualifications of these candidates and all candidates. After the efforts of so many, for so long, this is the year! Encourage a woman to vote. Encourage a woman to run.

Lexi Ruesch

Rebecca Goodman

Jamie Shaw

Lexi Ruesch, Washington; Rebecca Hansen, Toquerville; and Jamie Shaw, Washington; are members and volunteers of Mormon Women for Ethical Government, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to building a more peaceful, just and ethical world.