SALT LAKE CITY — When it comes to women in American politics, men hold far more elected positions than women. In Utah, the gender gap is a bit wider. But in this latest election, a change has started to happen with more and more women mayors taking office – many of whom are the first women elected mayors in their city’s history.
“When women show up, they tend to win,” said Pat Jones, former state legislator and CEO of the Women’s Leadership Institute. She says about 17% of cities in Utah have a female mayor.
When asked why it was so important to have more equal representation, Jones replied, “When I was in research, we looked at all kinds of issues over the years and found a huge gender gap on issues such as education and education funding, for example, health care, gun issues, environmental issues – you can just browse the line and you will see between 5% and 25% difference.
West Valley City was sworn in as its first-ever female mayor earlier this month. Mayor Karen Lang says she’s never seen gender roles as a barrier in any of her previous positions, and that still isn’t the case for her.
” I was lucky. I had no breakpoints because of sex,” she said.
Lang worked in a lumber yard, then started his own business before entering politics.
While the overall numbers are still low for female mayors compared to males in the state, six of the state’s 10 largest cities are led by women. This includes Salt Lake City, West Valley, Provo, Sandy, St. George and South Jordan.
1 Salt Lake City
2 West Valley
3 West of Jordan
seven Saint George
9 South Jordan
Mayor Michelle Kaufusi of Provo is now in her second term and is the city’s first female mayor.
“I went and found the ‘Wall of Mayors’ and there were 44 wonderful, strong male mayors on that wall and not a single woman,” Kaufusi said. “So I thought, ‘I’m going to work really hard for a year and keep my other elected position and see if I can break through this glass ceiling,’ because I want my daughters and everybody’s daughters to know that it’s not just a boys club.
When asked why she thought more women weren’t running for office, she said she thought a lot of women felt comfortable playing a supporting role, and that it was uncomfortable to withdraw from it.
Two-term mayor Holly Daines of Logan says more good people — women and men — are needed in local politics.
“When I ran in the municipal elections, there were 13 candidates. And they were good qualified people running for two seats. In our last election, there were three candidates who ran for two seats. And luckily we had good people, but I think the number of people at all levels who want to get involved in politics is dwindling these days,” Daines said.
Newly appointed Mayor Mollie Halterman serves in the town of Parowan, in southern Utah, and is the first woman from that town to hold the position.
“It’s a kind of overtaking. I think the reason it’s not “more equal” is a barrier that doesn’t exist, and I think for other women it’s a barrier that you don’t need to think about. Just think out of your place, what you really want to do,” Halterman said.
Utah had a female governor in Olene Walker, but she was never elected. She ascended to this position when Governor Mike Leavitt accepted a federal position. His bid for a second term failed.
Voters in the state have elected four women to Congress in the past. However, the current delegation does not include any women and there has never been a female senator from Utah.
“Women see things differently than men,” Gunnison Mayor Lori Nay said. “I think it’s important for people to serve for the right reasons, and it can be really rewarding when you do.”
Nay is in his third term as mayor of the small central Utah town, having previously served on the city council for two terms. She says even in rural Utah, women can still win elections.
“I think it’s a perceived barrier. Once you enter this arena, you find it a perfect place to do the things you care about in your community. It gives you a chance to do things to make a difference in other people’s lives, and what a wonderful feeling it is when you can make a difference,” she said.
Mayors across the state come from a variety of backgrounds, some with prior political experience before assuming the role of mayor and some without any.
“You don’t have to have a certain set of qualifications to run for office,” Mayor Daines said. “I mean, I would run a household, it’s probably similar to running a small business, but I hadn’t run a particular business, I hadn’t been involved in politics before the council, but I had been involved in my community.
Mayor Kaufusi encouraged other women to try it.
“If I can do it, you can do it. There is nothing too special for me. I’m a hard worker and that’s probably my positive talent that I have, so if I can come in and do that, you can too,” she said.
Mayor Halterman added: “I visualize all of us, many of us as race horses that have been stuck in the starting grid, and now that grid is open and we’re just ready to go.”