Nevada is the first American state with a female-majority legislature. Why not Utah?
Four years ago, I took my nine-year-old daughter with me on a visit to the Utah state capitol building. She took a look at the photos on the Senate and House rosters and asked me, “Where are all the girls?”
The Utah Legislature is now in session, and this time around there are more female lawmakers than ever before. Twenty-five women, including five women of color, currently serve as state senators or representatives in Utah. These women make up 24% of the 104-member Legislature.
The improvement is significant. The Utah Legislature now has the same proportion of women as the United States Congress, which also includes more women this term than ever before. I am grateful for the efforts of coalitions like Real Women Run, who have worked tirelessly to bring about this change.
Even so, I look wistfully to our neighbor to the West, Nevada, which currently has a narrow female majority in its state legislature. This cohort of Nevada lawmakers is the first American legislature in history with more women than men. Did you catch that? Almost a century after most American states started allowing women to become lawmakers, only one of the fifty American states has ever had a majority female legislature, and it happened for the first time this year. People sometimes tell me that if my church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), extended the priesthood to women, men would be displaced, lounging around with nothing to do while women took over. That certainly hasn’t happened in secular society. Don’t worry, men!
Political pundits are crediting the recent improvements in female representation to female organizing and activism. I don’t doubt they are right, but I also wonder why progress has been uneven across the nation. Why hasn’t my home state of Utah achieved proportional representation like our neighbors?
1. Utah is the only state where the majority of its citizens are members of the LDS Church.
Nevada has the 4th highest proportion of LDS members in the nation, at 6%. That’s a lot of LDS people, but not nearly as many as Utah at 62% LDS.
Members of the LDS church are accustomed to seeing men – and only men – in priesthood leadership positions. Naturally, some church members may choose to vote for the kinds of leaders they are accustomed to. Inequity in religious societies spills over into the secular societies that surround them.
In Utah, members of the LDS Church make up 88% of the legislature, well above proportional representation for a group that is 62% of the state population. Likewise, LDS church members are often overrepresented in Congress in comparison to the LDS share of the American population. While LDS women have held state and federal office, LDS elected officials are disproportionately male.
Latter-day Saint men gain leadership experience and social contacts in the male-only LDS priesthood hierarchy. I have often heard fellow Utahns say things like, “He used to be a stake president, so I know he’s honest and hard-working and I’ll vote for him.” The same can never be said for a woman.
2. The Utah Legislature has a Republican super-majority.
In contrast, both Houses of the Nevada Legislature are controlled by Democrats. In Congress, there are 7 times as many female Democrats as female Republicans. Nationwide, 61% of women in state legislatures are Democrats and 38% are Republicans.
During the recent election cycle, Democrats gained support among almost every demographic of women—including white women, who have historically been more likely to vote Republican than women of color. Pundits say that both a Republican platform that is unfriendly to women and Republican support of men with sexual harassment histories is fueling this exodus. There are still many women left in the Republican Party, but fewer of them run for office, and among those who do, fewer win. While advocates for gender parity in legislative leadership have sought to promote women within both major political parties, they have had more success within the Democratic Party because Democrats actively seek to recruit and promote women in a way that Republicans do not.
The dominance of both Republicans and LDS church members in Utah politics are not unrelated. In spite of professed political neutrality, church leaders tend to promote mostly Republicans to high-ranking clergy positions and often use Republican jargon in religious talks. (I’ve written about that before here.) American Latter-day Saints take the hint and overwhelmingly vote Republican.
I look forward to the day when it is just as likely that a legislative body will be majority female as majority male. In my home state of Utah, that day is still a long way off.