Go for it! Organizations encourage women to enter politics
Taylorsville Mayor Kristie Overson and District 4 Councilwoman, Meredith Harker. (Mayor Kristie Overson)
While obtaining a seat in local government does not provide much financial reward, there are perks when running for office. Patricia Jones, CEO of the Women’s Leadership Institute (WLI), spent 14 years serving the Utah Legislature and was surprised at just how beneficial learning the system ended up being.
As Jones explained during a mid-January interview, having an understanding of how government worked provided her and her family invaluable information when she began looking into long term care options for an aged parent.
“There are just so many things you learn, that help you in your own personal life, and help your loved ones,” Jones said. It’s something many Utah women are beginning to discover.
Utah’s rank for women in office is on the rise with more projected to run in future elections.
“I think we’re seeing more women run, because they’re feeling more confident,” said Jones.
In 2016, Utah ranked 45th among state legislatures for percentage of women holding office. A rank that can be disheartening considering Utah’s history of being ahead of the curve when it comes to women in politics.
In 1896—24 years before women were granted the right to vote— Martha Hughes Cannon ran as a Democrat against her husband, and became the first female state senator of the United States.
Though Utah fell behind the curve in regards to the number of women in office, it appears to be a statistic that is steadily increasing.
In accordance with Utah Valley University, within just one year Utah’s rank went from 45th to 38th, with five women gaining seats in the House. Bringing the number of women serving the 104-member Legislature up to 21 (15 House, six Senate).
Organizations with programs offering political campaign education to women are seeing a rise in participants as well, meaning Utah will continue to see an increase of women running in future elections.
Jones of WLI, an organization formed three years ago with the intent to support women in both business and political leadership, has seen a significant rise in participants for their political development program.
“The first year we had 17 women that applied and that were in the class, last year we had 23, and this year we have 50,” said Jones.
Jones explained that four of the female mayors elected during the November 2017 election were part of WLI’s political development program. Those four are: Michelle Kaufusi from Provo, Holly Daines from Logan, Kelleen Potter from Heber City, and Katie Witt from Kaysville.
“The great thing about the [program] is they get to know one another and want to help each other. It’s really a magical thing to see,” Jones said.
Real Women Run (RWR) is another organization created to empower women, founded in 2011 at YWCA Utah.
Erin Jemison, director of public policy with RWR, reported of the 98 women who were elected to office in the 2017 election, 23 were RWR participants.
Kristie Steadman Overson, newly elected mayor of Taylorsville attended one of Real Women Run’s events six years ago, as preparation when she ran for a seat on Taylorsville City Council.
Overson won the council seat, where she continued to serve until running and being elected mayor. During her campaign, Overson knocked on almost 3,000 doors and discovered communication was a top concern for her constituents.
“Connecting with someone on their doorstep is a lot different than getting perspective during a council meeting. As I did that… I thought I can take this knowledge and use it, so communication is absolutely the key,” Overson said.
Cottonwood Heights recently elected District 3 Councilwoman Tali Bruce also attended training through Real Women Run and found the personal testimonials of women who had run beneficial.
“You can spend a lot of time prepping for something like this, but their advice was solid. To just go for it,” Bruce recounted of her experience.
Along with Bruce, Christine Watson Mikell was the other woman who altered the all-male demographic of Cottonwood Heights previous city council.
“I think boards or councils are better when there’s a diverse perspective. [Being] a mother, business owner, I offer a diverse perspective that may have not been on the council throughout the life of the city,” Mikell said.
Though Mikell had planned to participate in one of WLI’s groups, due to schedule conflicts she was unable to attend before running for council.
“I think those organizations are fantastic, and I wish I’d had the benefit [of one of those programs],” Mikell said.
Although Mikell was unable to prep for her campaign through WLI or RWR her experience working on the board of Utah Clean Energy provided hands-on experience for collaboration.
Newly elected South Jordan Mayor Dawn Ramsey, shares a similar path with her years of service on the Utah PTA State Board of Directors, which provided an opportunity to work with other female elected officials.
“I work with a lot of women who hold positions of capacity that make a big difference… I’ve learned a lot from those women,” Ramsey stated.
For Ramsey, growth is the main issue that she will focus on during her term as mayor.
“Working with other local mayors and legislators, to try to help protect what we love most about South Jordan, and to work hard to get the services and funding that we need to continue to enhance quality of life for all of our residents,” Ramsey said.
All in all, it is looking to be promising year as more women enter the political arena in Utah.
When asked what advice they would offer other women thinking of running for office in the future, the advice from all women was the same: Go for it!
“We need more women in the legislature,” said Jones with WLI.
She added, “There are real structural benefits of having gender balance… it’s not good enough to have just one woman at the table.”
With the rise of females enrolled in political development education, Utah is sure to see more women on the ticket for 2018.