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Women's voices ring out in Legislature

"I believe the day will come when, through that very refinement the elevating and ennobling influence which women exert . . . all that is base and unclean in politics . . . will be burnt and purged away."

- Orson F. Whitney, Utah Constitutional Convention, 1895.

That's a tall order.

But the 18 women now representing their neighbors and colleagues in the Utah Legislature make up the largest, most powerful collection of their gender in the state's history, and all are stepping up and speaking out like at no other time.


- Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, who organized bipartisan support for a bill that would force insurance companies that cover prescriptions to also cover contraceptives. Many do not. She is co-founder of the "mainstream" Republican House caucus to offset influence by rural, conservative Republicans.

- Rep. Susan Koehn, R-Woods Cross, is the other half of the House "mainstream" caucus. She is sponsoring a variety of professional licensing and public safety concerns.

- Rep. Judy Ann Buffmire, D-Salt Lake, is assistant minority whip and proponent for all education issues.

- Rep. Christine Fox-Finlinson, R-Lehi, is majority leader and the Legislature's most powerful woman. Vocal on a variety of issues, she has the best chance to be Utah's first female Speaker of the House.

- Rep. Tammy Rowan, R-Orem, is sponsoring a controversial "English-only" bill that would make English the official language of Utah. It would prohibit the state from conducting government business or printing information in any language but English, with few exceptions.

- Rep. Afton Bradshaw, R-Salt Lake, is the group's most experienced lawmaker, elected in 1985. She is an advocate for various education, and spokeswoman for University of Utah concerns.

- Rep. Loretta Baca, D-Salt Lake, is an advocate for many victim, minority and women's protection issues. She is sponsor of a bill that would channel 20 percent of forfeited money in drug cases into drug treatment programs for children and youth.

- Rep. Nora Stephens, R-Sunset, is a tireless advocate for all legislation designed to tighten restrictions on drunk driving and other alcohol-related issues.

- Rep. Marda Dillree, R-Farmington. Vocal about transportation concerns affecting Davis County, she is one of the first to suggest an option other than toll roads to pay for the Legacy Highway.

- Sen. Millie Petersen, R-West Valley City, is the lone member of the Senate among the women. Known for her concern about education issues, particularly school district size, she has attempted several times to divide the Granite School District, which is the state's largest.

"With the man/woman issue, I feel we come at issues from different angles," said Rep. Lorraine Pace, R-Logan, the newest female representative in the House, appointed to an open seat this past summer.

"It's our makeup, our background, our experience . . . women's voices are very important in the whole scheme of things."

"It does feel stronger because there are a few more of us speaking out. Although we have differences, we do have some similarities," said Buffmire. "We have a nice compatible group - we can agree and we can disagree."

Bradshaw, the House Parliamentarian and unofficial team mother, was one of only five women legislators when elected to the House 13 years ago. The contingency certainly has come a long way, she said.

"I think there's a better feeling now. There are more of us and there are very high-caliber women here now.

"There is a good attitude - but that doesn't mean we all vote the same way. No."

"And the great result will justify woman's present participation in the cause for reform. . . . It is woman's destiny to have a voice in the affairs of government. She was designed for it. She has a right to it."

- Orson F. Whitney

In Utah, women elected to the Legislature can not be categorized or boxed into neat political packages.

They are neither women's libbers nor LDS Relief Society presidents acting out the functions of Utah's dominant religion. They are neither traditional "feminists" nor wives acting as their husband's mouthpiece.

Their ideas and philosophies are as varied as the professions they set aside for the 45-day legislative session that ends March 4.

They are teachers and administrators, attorneys and retirees, advocates for victims of crimes and leaders in their political parties. They are business owners, psychologists, social workers, public relations professionals, volunteers and homemakers.

And they all hope to make a difference and bring perspective to a historically male institution that has set rule and law and form in Utah since the late 1800s.

Martha "Mattie" Hughes Cannon, elected in 1897 as Utah's first female senator, set a precedent for women's efforts for legislation to benefit women.

During her four years as a senator, Cannon, a doctor and wife of polygamist Angus Cannon, played an active role in the women's suffragist movement.

She introduced three bills: one to protect the health of "women and girl employees," another to provide education for deaf, blind and mute children and a third to create a state Board of Health.

This year, 13 of 17 women in the House signed as co-sponsors on Allen's bill to require insurance companies that cover other prescriptions to also cover contraceptives.

"It's just general, good women's health, so women can space their children, plan their families and avoid unwanted pregnancies," Allen said, which is why it earned the bipartisan support it did.

Bradshaw agrees. "That's a significant thing. Not so much because we all stuck together but because it is a women's issue, and most of us are really conscious about that."

A few, like Stephens and Rowan, did not support the bill.

Rowan believes she represents women with a different outlook than some traditional "women's groups."

"I wouldn't say I'm really in a `counter women's role' but I'm in more of an anti-feminist or pro-family stance," Rowan said.

Social events, like one held this past week, also bring the women together. At a dinner for women representatives, the lawmakers set aside their differences and legislation and focused on similarities - and on Fox-Finlinson's recent marriage to attorney and lob-by-ist Fred Finlinson.

Each gave Fox-Finlinson a bit of marriage advice. They laughed a lot, ate a lot and had good conversation, Bradshaw said.

"This great social upheaval, this woman's movement that is making itself heard and felt, means something more than that certain women are ambitious to vote and hold office. I regard it as one of the great levers by which the Almighty is lifting up this fallen world, lifting it nearer to the throne of its Creator. . .."

- Orson F. Whitney