Experience is often the best teacher, and the last few weeks were filled with important lessons about life, women and society. I invite you to reflect with me.
In early January, I attended former House Speaker Becky Lockhart’s memorial service at the state Capitol. In what I can only describe as patriotic grace, our state honored this much-loved public servant in the perfect way. Ask anyone who attended the service and they will confirm it was a deeply moving event. The Lockhart family, legislators, legislative staff and ecclesiastical leaders made clear in their remarks that a woman can have a beautiful family and be a leader in the community. I only wish we didn’t have to witness the tragedy of her death to have such a poignant reminder.
I received a second reminder about the contributions of women in the public square when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held a news conference in late January announcing support for legislation that protects the rights of LGBT people in housing, employment and other areas, while ensuring protections of religious freedom. The balanced and inclusive message was needed and welcome, but equally needed was the messenger.
The LDS Church featured Neill F. Marriott of the church’s Young Women general presidency at the media event. With her flair for language, likable demeanor and empathetic style, Marriott looked confidently at the cameras as she shared the news that the church favors laws and ordinances that protect LGBT people from discrimination in housing and employment. This affirmation of rights didn’t come first from an LDS Church apostle, although three were present. It came from an articulate woman who, as a mother of 11 children, knows a thing or two about the diversity of human souls and the importance of unqualified love. By having her speak alongside Elders D. Todd Christofferson, Dallin H. Oaks and Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve, the church publically demonstrated the value of a woman’s voice, perspective, and contributions. I took note.
Just to highlight the point, consider the perfected wisdom Neill Marriott shared in speaking about divisive issues: “We're at our best as fellow citizens when the push-pull of different viewpoints, freely and thoroughly aired in national debate, lead ultimately to compromise and resolution and we move on as a nation, stronger than before." This sounds a lot like raising children and reminds us of the incredible value women bring to leadership roles. The complementarity of male and female is not limited to marriage and family — it includes institutions, organizations and community. I think the LDS Church got this announcement spot on in both message and messenger.
The last experience I want to highlight stands in contrast to the prior two. I was driving along I-15 and saw a provocative billboard. It included a large depiction of Delicate Arch (a symbol of our state) with a woman in the foreground wearing a scant white bikini. It said, “Shape Utah” and then provided contact information for plastic surgery services.
My heart sank when I saw such a limiting and counterproductive view of women and the future of our state. I find the message inconsistent with who we are and what we want to become. A friend of mine has suggested that a better way to shape Utah is for Utah women to receive a college education. She’s right and, unfortunately, the most recent data on educational attainment shows Utah women have been losing ground. We need to set a higher bar for ourselves.
I do, however, find considerable reason for optimism. Those who attended the Lockhart public memorial service will tell you how impressed they were with Becky Lockhart’s daughter, Emily Britton. She delivered stirring and tender remarks about her incredible mother. Those of us who knew the House speaker — but not her family — watched in awe as we witnessed her daughter’s composure, beauty and profound love. It provided a powerful reminder of the great young women in this state and the power of and potential for their leadership.
Despite poorly messaged billboards along our freeways, I see a bright future for Utah women. I see a dominant faith tradition that recognizes women have much to offer in all aspects of life and is increasingly finding ways to expand these opportunities. I see a younger generation of women, like my own daughter, with amazing skills and whom I’m confident will make this world a much better place. I look forward with a sense of optimism and purpose.
Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.