Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
🐘 RNC updates via NPR: JD Vance is the headliner for night 3

Utah Is Celebrating Its Suffragist History, But Why Are So Few Women Elected?

Photo of billboard that reads "Seraph Young, First Woman To Vote."
Nicole Nixon
This year Utah is celebrating 100 years of women's suffrage in the state.

Utah is pulling out all the stops to celebrate the centennial of women’s voting rights and other suffragist anniversaries. Advocates and lawmakers have planned celebrations, lectures and events throughout 2020.

Later this year, Utah will send a statue of Martha Hughes Cannon — the first woman in the nation to be elected as a state senator — to the U.S. Capitol.

House Speaker Brad Wilson lauded the anniversaries as “important milestones” that “changed the course of history.” 

In his State of the State Address, Gov. Gary Herbert recognized the state’s female elected officials who are “carrying on the legacy of Dr. Cannon. You are proving that a Utah woman’s place is in the House — and in the Senate,” he said to cheers and applause.

Still, some women say it’s disingenuous for white, male Republicans to be touting the century-old achievements of suffragists when there are few female elected officials in Utah today. 

Photo of Martha Hughes Cannon statue at Utah Capitol.
Credit Cory Dinter for KUER
A new statue of Martha Hughes Cannon will be sent to the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall this year to mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amerndment's ratification.

Women only hold a quarter of Utah’s legislative seats and all statewide elected offices are held by men.

“It’s a little ironic” to be lauding women’s suffrage in a state that, 100 years later, is still largely represented by men, said Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek. “They just need to be doing a lot more. Some of them are trying, but the efforts aren’t enough.”

Patricia Jones, a former Democratic lawmaker who now runs the nonpartisan Women’s Leadership Institute, agrees. 

“It would be nice if we had progressed much faster than we have,” she said. 

Jones believes there are a couple reasons for Utah’s low gender parity rates.

“Women don’t see themselves in politics,” she said. “They see it as combative. Women don’t get up in the morning, look themselves in the mirror and say, ‘I’m going to be governor.’ Some men do that.” She adds that more and more, that’s beginning to change, though.

Jones, who served 14 years in the Legislature, says it’s the state’s dominant political party that struggles to elect women.

She points to research out of Brigham Young University that shows women attend Republican caucuses at equal rates, but only about a quarter of elected delegates are women.

BYU Political Science Professor Jessica Preece conducted that research. She said her work has found that “party leaders play a very important role in encouraging women to run. Unless leaders are actively recruiting and supporting women, we're unlikely to see increases in women's representation.”

But Jones isn’t sure the Republican Party is building up their candidate pipeline. 

“I think they’re starting to wake up to that, but I literally have to go out and ask people in the Republican Party, “Please send me some potential candidates (that are) Republican women,” she said.

Photo of women in capitol wearing yellow roses.
Credit Courtesy Utah State Senate
Utah's female lawmakers in 2019 wore yellow roses to commemorate the 149th anniversary of Utahn Seraph Young, who cast the first vote under a suffrage law in 1870.

One of those Republican women is 33-year-old Emily Coleman. In 2018, longtime GOP state Sen. Margaret Dayton announced her retirement, and Jones encouraged Coleman to run for the seat.

Coleman had spent years working for Republican Congressmen Chris Stewart and Jason Chaffetz, and felt she was ready to run for office. But she noticed a pattern while talking with party delegates before the convention.

“It sort of felt like I had to overcome the hurdle of indicating to people that I was actually serious about running (and) that I had qualifications,” she said.

Photo of a woman standing in from of a large red sign that reads "Emily Ellsworth for Utah State Senate."
Credit Courtesy Emily Coleman
Emily Coleman (formerly Ellsworth) at the Utah Republican nominating convention in 2018, when she ran for a state senate seat.

She was running for the Republican nomination against a lawmaker who was giving up his House seat to run for the Senate. When she got into the race, Coleman tried to tap into the network of current lawmakers, who are mostly men, for guidance and resources. 

But as a first-time female candidate, she felt like she hit a wall. 

“The overall sentiment I got was, ‘We think you’d be great here, if you can make it,’” she said. 

Coleman says it was frustrating. “What I really wanted was some help — some resources — to get into this network that I knew, for instance, my opponent was in. It felt like that was very much closed to me until I earned my place.” 

Coleman lost at the Republican nominating convention.

“I certainly don’t blame the fact that I didn’t win on being a woman,” she said. “I think it’s absolutely a lot more complex than that. But I think I would have maybe come a little closer if I had had some of those resources, or things might have been just a little bit different.”

Coleman hopes as leaders — particularly male elected officials — celebrate suffragists and trailblazing women like Martha Hughes Cannon, they’ll also acknowledge there’s a long way to go to reach gender parity in politics. 

But Coleman says now that she knows what an uphill battle it is, she isn’t sure she’ll ever run for office again. 

As far as getting more women to run, Patricia Jones has advice for parents and grandparents: Take your daughters to vote, to caucuses and to other political meetings “andlet them know why it’s important that they’re involved in this. 

“Think about all of these very meaty and heady sort of decisions that are made (in politics). Women need to be part of that.”

Nicole Nixon covers politics for KUER. Follow them on Twitter @_Nixo

Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.