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Have Utah’s Senate seats hardened into a ‘concrete ceiling’ that women will never break?

Every serving Utah U.S. Senator, 1896-present
Courtesy U.S. Senate Historical Office
All of Utah's serving senators, starting with the present and then from left to right in order they left office. Row 1: Mike Lee, Mitt Romney, Orrin Hatch, Robert Bennett, E.J. Garn and Frank E. Moss. Row 2: Wallace F. Bennett, Arthur v. Watkins, Elbert D. Thomas, O. Abram Murdock Jr., Williams H. King and Reed Smoot. Row 3: George Sutherland, Thomas Kearns, Joseph L. Rawlins, Frank J. Cannon and Arthur Brown.

Of the six seats in Utah’s congressional delegation, none are currently held by women. And even as Utah has made a little progress at the state level and in the U.S. House with the number of women in elected office, the state has never chosen to send a woman to the U.S. Senate.

After the primaries, that won’t change in 2022.

Both Republican challengers, Ally Isom and Becky Edwards, were pushed aside when incumbent Sen. Mike Lee won 61.9% of the primary vote.

As the results came in on election night, Edwards reflected in front of a crowd of her supporters.

“As I look at so many young people here tonight, I think about them and where they'll be in six years and 12 years,” she said. “And I think, man, I hope this little 4-year-old girl does not get to be 50 years old and still we're in the same situation.”

It’s just a matter of time, Edwards believes, before Utah votes a woman in.

While it was a discouraging result, Susan R. Madsen, founding director of the Utah Women and Leadership Project, said Utah has had some wins on a local level.

We've made progress with women getting into mayoral positions and other kinds of positions,” she said. “But we're really struggling in terms of breaking that glass ceiling. And maybe it's even more than a glass ceiling, maybe it's a concrete ceiling, but we've got to do something to move it forward so we have a better representation.”

Madsen said Utah just wasn’t ready. She, like Edwards, believes it might take a couple more years, and part of that has to do with perception, like what people think a leader looks like.

“The research nationally says 70-to-75% of people still picture a man,” she said.

If more of Utah’s male leaders threw their support behind challengers, Madsen said, it might have made a difference in the primary.

“If more men who were CEOs of businesses, who were really top voices that people looked at, if they would have put major money down and been vocal, [if] they weren't nervous,” she said. “Many of our male leaders knew they didn't want to go with Mike Lee, but he was the one that people were giving money to. So they kind of went along or just withheld money from everyone.”

But some people aren’t sure that electing a woman is enough to make a change.

Deja Gaston, a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, said it didn’t matter whether the candidates were women because they didn’t represent her political beliefs.

“Regardless of the fact of their gender, I think ultimately in terms of the politics and the positions that they put forward, we're still very much not going to ultimately help the working class,” Gatson said.

She said many people are disengaged with voting because they don’t see their elected representatives fulfilling their campaign promises — no matter who’s running. Though Gaston views voting as important, she says it’s not the end-all-be-all as many politicians have framed it.

“Voting, that isn't the only solution. There are much more powerful grassroots solutions,” she said. “And I mean, again, back to the point of how voting was won in the first place was because there was such a powerful mobilization and movement for people to win that demand.”

For people who went to the polls for Edwards or Isom, Madsen said it’s not time to give up hope. There’s more to be done, she said, and both candidates pushed the needle for representation.

“I think [Edwards and Isom] really forged the way for us as Utahns to think critically about who we can vote for,” she said. “And even in our minds say, ‘wait, a woman could do this.’”

Ivana is a general assignment reporter
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