We’ve seen the headlines and read the studies. Utah ranks 49th in the nation for women in politics. Utah ranks last in terms of women being in positions of decision making and leadership. Women represent more than 50% of the voters in Utah but are underrepresented in political office. There are no women serving in Utah statewide executive offices. Last year I attended a networking social of a group that has been formed to encourage women to run for office and be involved in politics. One of the questions that came up was why more women aren’t getting involved. While I believe there are many factors, I offer my perspective as a woman who has been serving in city government.
In 2011 I submitted my name for election to the City Council. I was excited and energized to serve my community and add my strengths in areas I felt would be helpful. I viewed this as an opportunity to better understand how city government works and to do my part in creating a community where people wanted to live. I had no expectations of winning as I was relatively unknown in my city. Through a lot of hard work and support from people who trusted me, I was able to win a seat on the Council. In 2015 I ran for re-election and was honored to win a second term. I have learned a lot throughout this process and am grateful for the opportunity to serve in this capacity.
During my service, it has become clear to me that women in politics are treated differently than men in the same position. I face criticisms and questions that my male colleagues do not. In 2011 when I first submitted my name for City Council, my youngest child was 13 days old. As I was campaigning, many times with an infant strapped to me, there were some who questioned my ability to be an effective member of the Council with young children at home. During my run for re-election last year, there were some who expressed that because I had gone back to work part-time I no longer had the time or dedication to serve on the Council. My male counterparts all have full-time jobs (some have multiple jobs) and young families at home, yet I have not heard anyone question their abilities or commitment to their Council duties. We need to start recognizing that the women in our lives are capable of taking on as much as they choose. The men in our lives are capable of being good fathers, husbands, workers, volunteers and representatives. We as women are also capable of being good moms, workers, volunteers and representatives.
For the past two years I have been the only female serving on our City Council. A few of my male colleagues often seek my opinion on city-related issues. Unfortunately, this has led to some claiming I have an inappropriate relationship with one of my male colleagues. There was no assumption that I had proven myself to be reasonable and fair, capable of researching issues and presenting educated opinions. Instead, the insinuation was that a good working relationship with a male colleague could only be because of an inappropriate relationship. The first time our Council received an email with this accusation, I was devastated. I shared this with my husband and seriously considered dropping out of the race for re-election. I did not want to do anything that would cause others to call in to question my loyalty, love, and respect for those who matter most to me – my husband and children. My husband, who has been my advocate since considering my first run in 2011, encouraged me to stay strong and not let the ugliness of these accusations keep me from doing this job. I’m so grateful for his support throughout this process. We need to recognize that the input and opinions of women are just as valuable as that of men. Instead of assuming that a woman who works well with a male colleague on a team or project must be doing something inappropriate, we should encourage team work and collaboration in our government. We should assume that opinions solicited from women are because she has proven herself capable and knowledgeable.
I have faced criticism of my appearance. Last year I attended a community meeting on a night I wasn’t feeling well. I attended this meeting because the subject was important to me and to the residents whom I represent. I was later criticized for looking burned out and acting out of duty, not enthusiasm for my role as a member of the City Council. I have not seen my male colleagues critiqued for their appearance or reasons for attending meetings. Let us work to evaluate our representatives on their actions, not on outward appearances. We should not assume that a woman who isn’t looking her best means she is burned out or acting for the wrong reasons.
I do not like the inherent nastiness that can come with politics. I am comfortable expressing differences of opinion and have engaged in several heated debates regarding city issues. However, I am not one who likes to use the public forum, whether that be public meetings or social media, to attack and accuse those I work with. Because I have refused to publicly contend with my fellow representatives, I’ve been accused of not thinking for myself. My male counterparts who have also chosen to not engage in public attacks do not receive this same criticism but are viewed as peacemakers. Everyone handles conflict and disagreements in different ways. We shouldn’t assume that a woman who fights her battles behind the scenes and not in public forums is incapable of thinking for herself. We should encourage representatives to stick to the issues and not engage in personal attacks.
Dealing with these issues, especially in a position where your counterparts all are men, can lead to a feeling of walking down a lonely road. Where my male counterparts can get together for one-on-one meetings to discuss business, I now am wary of accusations that will be made and won’t meet with my male colleagues outside of a group setting. Where my male counterparts are able to establish friendships with each other, I have to distance myself a bit to avoid any appearance of wrongdoing. I often feel the need to work twice as hard and justify my involvement with city projects so as not to be accused of receiving special treatment. These are not issues my male colleagues face.
I hope we get to a point where women in government are recognized for their abilities, insight, and efforts. We have much to offer and our voices need to be heard. I hope we can see the need for more women involvement in politics and not assume that women are unable to handle the same challenges men face with regards to balancing home, work, and community. I am in no way advocating that we vote for a candidate simply based on gender. I am advocating that we measure women in politics and executive positions with the same ruler we use to measure men. As I have encouraged women in my city to run for office, I hear the same thing over and over, which is a fear of dealing with personal attacks. I hope this perception can change, but it will only happen if we treat women as equally capable and judge our female representatives on the same merits we use to judge our male representatives. Our communities will benefit from encouraging the women in our lives to become engaged and involved.