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The Right Hand Woman - Why Female Running Mates Are Everywhere In 2020

Side-by-side photos of LG Candidates.
Courtesy of campaigns
Both candidates in the race for Utah's lieutenant governor are women. Republican Deidre Henderson is Spencer Cox's running mate. Democrat Karina Brown is running with Chris Peterson.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden announced Tuesday Kamala Harris is his pick for vice president. She is the first black woman to be chosen by a major political party for the role. Here in Utah, both candidates for lieutenant governor are also women — Republican Deidre Henderson and Democrat Karina Brown. 

And, given the current climate Susan Madsen, director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project, says it’s particularly poignant to discuss the role of women in powerful positions in government.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: What is it about 2020 that apparently makes it “the year” to have a female running mate? Why now?

Susan Madsen: I think it's so important right now. There are so many things going on in the world. Especially with the racial issues and other equality issues that have been building for a number of years, people just want to see more diversity, and gender diversity is so important. The research for years and years has been very clear and shown that when you have both men and women working together in leadership, that there's so many more benefits for society, for businesses, for legislatures and so forth. I think more and more people understand that.

CB: What does having a female vice president or a female lieutenant governor mean for women's decision making and leadership roles in government?

SM: Women care about different things often than men. The research says states that actually have more women legislators give funding more to education, health care, social programs and support for victims of sexual assault and those kinds of things. When you don't have a woman at that top table, the funding is given in different ways. In Utah, we don't have as many women in those top leadership roles, particularly in government and in politics.

CB: What about the fact that Biden declared he would be picking a woman? Does it diminish the choice at all? Would it be different if there was no preamble or qualification on that?

SM: I don't think so. I think he did that very strategically, and I think it's a no brainer, to be honest. But whether he's doing that to just give himself an edge or not, to me, it's important that he chooses a woman for all the reasons that we've talked about.

CB: What is still preventing women from securing a nomination at the top of the ticket for roles like president, governor or even U.S. senator or representative? Those roles in Utah are currently all occupied by white men.

SM: They are. Politics is one of the hardest areas for women when you look at leadership research, and there's many reasons for that. It's such a masculine process getting in front of people and bragging about yourself and all of those things are very contrary — arguing with people and the conflict that comes in many races. That conflict, that talking about yourself, that needing to self promote — all of those things are things that women throughout our lives have been socialized not necessarily to do.

And by the way, women and men cannot self promote the same way. If women promote themselves like men, people judge them very harshly. It's what we call in the research a “double bind” for women. Leadership is still viewed by most people in the world as a masculine trade or activity. So women have this double bind of needing to be looked at as a leader, which is a masculine role, and be looked at as feminine, which is a feminine role. They're at odds, and you see that in politics very strongly.

CB: These high profile female picks for both parties in Utah's governor race and in the presidential race are still for a supporting role. What kind of power will they actually have?

SM: I think it will depend. When you look at governors around the United States as well as presidential candidates, they use their lieutenant governors very differently. A number of years ago, I did research and interviewed 10 of the women governors in the United States. So, I was able to look into those roles more. Some governors really do use those lieutenant governors.

I would think particularly if Spencer Cox and Deidre Henderson end up being in there, I expect she will have a strong voice on many issues. She served in the state legislature, as you know, and she has found her own voice and confidence and respect in those roles. 

And can I say it's so important in Utah to have a woman at that level of position, because if you don't see women in these positions of power, girls won't aspire. They won't think that they can run for office and serve in those roles. So having a lieutenant governor as a woman, in my opinion, is going to change things moving forward.

Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow them on Twitter @cballardnews

Caroline is the Assistant News Director
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