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We, the women

Women have always been trailblazers in the West. Why are some states falling behind?

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Nadia Radic for the Deseret News

She usually returned library books on time. But Emily Bell McCormick wanted to keep this one. As her mother read aloud the story of Joan of Arc, the image of an ironclad teenager leading an army clung to her memory.

“It’s truly against all odds, but she had a mission and nothing was going to deter her, even if it cost her her life,” McCormick recalls. “I think it was maybe my first time hearing a powerful woman’s story.” 

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Emily Bell McCormick, founder of the Policy Project, believes that policy reform can be as powerful as representation in office when it comes to improving women’s equality. Utah is ranked as the worst state for women’s equality, according to some reports.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Joan kept springing to McCormick’s mind when she was thinking about college. She wanted to study politics, to become a leader herself, but she didn’t think it was practical. Her parents never spoke to her about politics or told her that she, a Latter-day Saint girl from Holladay, Utah, growing up in the 1980s, could be a politician herself. McCormick didn’t see herself reflected in local leadership. And she didn’t see a path. 

According to Susan Madsen, the compass points to a larger problem. Madsen has studied women’s leadership for more than two decades, as both a professor and the founding director of the Utah Women and Leadership Project at Utah State University. So, last summer when WalletHub released a list — “2021’s Best and Worst States for Women’s Equality” — a local businessman asked Madsen to come up with ways to improve Utah’s ranking. Because for the fourth year in a row, Utah was dead last. 

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Utah State University Professor Susan Madsen, a speaker, author and a global thought leader on women and leadership, recently published re-search exploring the link between women’s quality of life and politics.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The rankings are based on metrics including the wage gap, higher education attainment and political representation. Madsen and her team went straight to WalletHub’s original sources, including census data and Department of Labor statistics, and found the same result. The team published a solution: get more Utah women elected to office. 

Women holding public offices makes a significant impact on policy — and the lives of Americans — across the country. Research from non-partisan non-profit The National Democratic Institute shows that as more women are elected to office, there is an increase in policymaking that emphasizes quality of life that undergirds positive and democratic impacts on communities. 

Those policies are often beneficial across party lines as well. Research shows that women’s leadership and conflict resolution styles exemplify democratic models and that women tend to work in a less hierarchical and more cooperative way than male colleagues. This results in 25 percent of women lawmakers in the U.S. citing women from the opposition party as key supporters of their top legislation, while only 17 percent of male lawmakers name similar support.

According to the Center for the American Woman and Politics, congresswomen in the U.S. sponsor three more bills per congressional term than congressmen and co-sponsor 26 more bills per term than male colleagues. They bring in 9 percent more money for their districts than male congressmen. Break it down, and that amounts to roughly $49 million extra for a district represented by women. 

Having women in office makes a difference for all of us. But the issue runs deeper than just getting women elected, Madsen says. It’s getting women interested to begin with. 

In states like Utah, a strong conservative and religious culture impacts the metrics, Madsen says. Data from Harvard researchers show that girls who grow up in lower-income households in Salt Lake City have greater household incomes and opportunities as adult women compared to other states, a reflection of the emphasis on married, two-parent families. But Madsen thinks the state’s messaging needs to also reflect the reality that women can be both mothers and professionals — including political office. 

The problem is bigger than one landlocked state in the West, a region where women account for 36 percent of state legislators, slightly more than the national average. But that’s still far less than the proportion of women who exist in the country. And evidence shows that the closer we get to political parity, the more women’s quality of life increases, both through public policy, and women being inspired by those in office. 


Utah State University professor Susan Madson, a speaker, author and a global thought leader on women and leadership, recently published research exploring the link between women’s quality of life and politics.

McCormick used to stare at Joan woven into a vibrant tapestry on her parents’ wall — her only political role model. She married after college at Brigham Young University, but waited to have children until finishing graduate school in 2004. And then went on to start a fashion business. She kept thinking about Joan, but she didn’t feel any closer to her than she did while reading about her in a book written by someone else. 

“I didn’t feel like an imposter,” McCormick says, “I was an imposter.” 

That’s one of the two main reasons behind the national underrepresentation of women, says Jennifer Lawless. The Leone Reaves and George W. Spicer Professor of Politics and professor of public policy at the University of Virginia, Lawless has been studying the gender gap in political ambition since 2001. Though there are now twice as many women in Congress as there were then, the ambition gap, the number of women who said they had an interest in running for office compared to men, is still the same: 16 percentage points. 

Women tend to think they need a list of qualifications no one person could have, whereas men “think what qualifies them is passion and vision,” she says. “We’ve seen this in hundreds of interviews with potential candidates and at the end of the day, it’s a lot easier to have passion and vision than two different graduate degrees.” Another reason fewer women run is because they’re a third less likely than men to think about it in the first place, partly because parents are less likely to talk to their daughters about politics. 

Lawless says it comes down to perception: Women use different yardsticks to measure their qualifications because they think the political arena is biased. “And until we can change that perception, it’s really difficult to figure out how to close this gender gap in political ambition.”

When women do run, research has found, they win at the same rates as comparable men in comparable races. But half of Americans don’t believe this is true, and many female candidates see barriers that studies show might not exist. 

This plays out in another challenge women face, or, at least think they face: fundraising. Ally Isom, who challenged U.S. Sen. Mike Lee in this year’s Republican primary race in Utah, felt like potential donors saw her as a “compromised investment” because of her gender. 

The last factor in women being less likely to want to run is competition aversion, according to Jessica Preece, a political science professor at Brigham Young University. Women are less likely to be competitive, and most want to enter politics because of a specific issue, whereas men are more likely to see politics as a personal career move. Many of these barriers are more magnified on the Republican side, in part because there are fewer candidate training organizations, but there’s also a cultural difference. 

In a recent study, Preece found conservative voters’ idea of politics is closely tied with visions of masculinity. “So when a candidate has a more typical masculine background, they’re a businessman and they care about taxes, that’s going to resonate with the Republican voter more than a candidate who is a teacher who cares a lot about education, even if what she wants for education is a very conservative vision, right?” she poses.

“Until we can change perceptions, it’s really difficult to figure out how to close this gender gap in political ambition.”

In 2016, McCormick decided to teach herself about politics. 

She started Googling one civics topic every day, unaware of training organizations like Emerge Nevada, or those in her home state like nonpartisan Utah Women Run — both of which teach women the nuts and bolts skills to run for office: making campaign plans, creating websites, crafting fundraising emails, and more nebulous things like connecting with people. 

Many of the 24 women who go through Emerge Nevada’s annual training are already working in a volunteer capacity, according to Danna Lovell, executive director of the organization. But more women in Utah volunteer than the national average, in part because of religious values, but also because of a history of women’s activism, specifically around suffrage. Women fought for and won the right to vote when Utah was still a territory in 1870. It was the first time in U.S. history that women voted, setting an example for the rest of the emerging U.S. 

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Nadia Radic for the Deseret News

“They were exceptionally good at building coalitions, by making themselves politically necessary, by reaching out to other people to broaden the appeal of their movement,” says Katherine Kitterman, a historian and executive director of Better Days 2020. The federal government outlawed women from voting in the Utah Territory a few years later. And although the legacy of women’s activism stuck around, it didn’t translate to more women entering public office. 

Utah Women Run trains roughly 400 women annually, says Morgan Lyon Cotti, a board member of the organization and  associate director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics. But there are only 27 women in the Utah Legislature, and women only hold 35 percent of municipal positions. The lack of women in office influences the types of laws that are — or aren’t — passed. It also impacts the price of doctor visits, one of Utah’s lowest scores on WalletHub’s ranking. According to Madsen, more women in office could help pass laws covering health care costs for women and children. 

More women in Utah volunteer than the national average, in part because of religious values, but also because of a history of women’s activism.

But even though these trends around women’s representation are magnified in states like Utah, women face obstacles across the political spectrum. 

The top-ranking state on 2021’s “Best and Worst States for Women’s Equality” list is Nevada — in part because it’s the only state with a female-majority Legislature. A whopping 58.7 percent of state legislators are women, compared to Utah’s 26 percent. 

So, what happened in Nevada, and how much power do women really have?

That’s a question that Jean Sinzdak, the associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, has been trying to figure out. 

When Western territories were looking to become states, they needed bodies to reach the threshold, and the Homestead Act helped. In 1863, anyone was allowed to acquire 160 acres of federal land, single women included. As women migrated to Nevada, Sondra Cosgrove, a historian at the College of Southern Nevada, says many of them opened boarding houses, laundries and restaurants, and eventually started running schools and social welfare programs — for money. 

“Once it gets into the psyche that women can have businesses, women can hold public offices,” Cosgrove says, “it’s not that big of a thing when these pioneer women want to cross over from what’s considered the female realm into something like a county assessor or a judge.” 

But just because the culture and seats were changing doesn’t mean everyone’s attitude was, too. 

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Maggie Carlton, Nevada’s longest-serving state legislator, has seen a shift in women’s representation and policy in her career. but she stresses how far politics are from parity.

Nevada Legislature

Maggie Carlton first became a Nevada state senator in 1998. She says women used to have to literally force their way into rooms when they weren’t invited to legislative meetings. In 2001, when legislators on the Commerce and Labor Committee were discussing a bill that could allow a woman’s OB-GYN to be their primary care provider, and another about mammograms for breast cancer testing, a male colleague leaned over and asked, “If I promise to vote for this stuff, can I leave now?” Carlton recalls. 

Now a state assemblywoman, Carlton says they’re able to have more open conversations about topics once regarded as “women’s issues,” like health care, disabilities and issues that affect working families. 

But things might not be as equal — or as rosy — as a ranking makes it seem. The year that Carlton, Nevada’s longest-serving state legislator, entered the Senate, 12-year term limits came into effect. “There was an incentive for men to be in our Legislature if they could go in and set up camp for a long time because the gaming industry and the mining industry are going to want to work with you,” Cosgrove says, “and then you get lucrative contracts or consulting when you’re not in session.” 

Many of the former male legislators went to municipal positions — like the Clark County Commission — and women took their places. Term limits have been a “double-edged sword,” says Lovell, with Emerge Nevada. The turnover means there’s no time to get stale, but it’s also harder to build institutional knowledge and people are looking for their next gig from the start. 

Nevada also has one of the country’s few part-time legislatures, meeting for 120 days every two years. Legislators only get a paycheck for the first 60 days. But as the state has grown, Carlton has found that it’s a Sisyphean task to make legislative progress with part-time hours. 

Maggie Carlton, Nevada’s longest-serving state legislator, has seen a shift in women’s representation and policy in her career. But she stresses how far politics are from parity.

“When you’ve got two million people in one county, there’s no way you’re going to get everything done in 60 days,” she says. “It’s a full-time job if you do it right.” A full-time job with part-time pay. Carlton is retiring in November but remembers the shock she felt during her first session. As a coffee shop waitress working Monday through Friday she made more than her state legislator salary, which comes in under $10,000 per session year. 

Add that to the uphill battle of passing legislation, and the job gets even less attractive. The Legislature is a powerful body on paper. “But if you’re only in session 120 days every other year, there’s going to be a natural encroachment on that power,” Cosgrove says. Since decisions still have to be made during the 18 months of downtime, the governorship and Clark County Commission have amassed influence. 

Only one woman sits on the seven-seat commission that’s “arguably the most powerful body in the state,” Lovell says. Since Las Vegas sits in Clark County, the commission handles most of the money from the gaming industry. And commissioners on average earn $90,000 per year, according to Transparent Nevada. 

Sara Evans, 39, works in social services and trained with Emerge Nevada. Her interest in politics started when she was a kid, but it felt too far removed from her immediate reality — that is, until she became more involved with her union. In January 2022, she decided that despite the challenges, she wants to run for the Nevada Legislature. That’s where she thinks she could do the most effective work. But now, she’s considering a run for the commission because the Legislature’s low pay and part-time structure make her nervous. 

After hundreds of interviews with politicians, stakeholders and lobbyists, the Center for American Women in Politics is finding a new result: that women’s equality in Nevada might not be as great as lists like WalletHub’s makes it seem. 

“It’s not to say that the Legislature doesn’t have any power at all,” Sinzdak says, “but it’s sort of understanding how it fits into the big picture.” 

Emily Bell McCormick, founder of The Policy Project, believes that policy reform can be as powerful as representation in office when it comes to improving women’s equality. Utah Is ranked as the worst state for women’s equality, according to some reports.


After months of squeezing in her self-taught lessons and memorizing political processes, McCormick started attending political caucuses, widening her network. When she began calling people, they got on board with the potential legislation: free period products in all K-12 schools in the state, which came to be known as the Utah Period Project, under the umbrella of a nonpartisan group McCormick founded, The Policy Project. 

But in lieu of running, McCormick decided that lobbying elected officials seemed like a good choice. Success didn’t happen overnight, though — it took hundreds of phone calls over four years. One of the people who eventually got a call was Kate Bradshaw — both a lobbyist and a member of the female-majority Bountiful City Council. 

Bradshaw admits that she’s a bit of an anomaly doing both simultaneously and that it’s more common for people to lobby after they’ve served in public office. Even though she estimates that male lobbyists in Utah outnumber women four to one, she still sees how women are affecting change. 

A few weeks later, Bradshaw received another call. She saw herself at the center of a Venn diagram of independent networks of women, reaching out to key leaders and changemakers to gather support for the legislation. 

“I think it’s probably our social training from the time we’re young that we build these types of networks,” Bradshaw says. “When women are serving in Relief Society or in civic settings like the PTA, you end up having these groups, and then you have overlapping generations. And so you’ll retain these networks that you, for the right issue, can activate.” 

And it worked: In March 2022, the Utah Legislature unanimously passed the Period Project bill, and Gov. Spencer Cox subsequently signed it into law. McCormick was floored — it was one thing for a “women’s issue” bill to pass, but another for it to pass unanimously.

But McCormick is still interested in running for state or federal office, which is important to people like Lyon Cotti, who says lobbying and holding offices aren’t mutually exclusive — women still need to be in the room and have a vote. 

“So will I run for office? Oh yeah, without a question. And I’ll probably lose,” McCormick says.

But she’s not worried about losing an election. She has her sights on something different. Something she thinks can ultimately have a bigger impact. 

“I can build something that’s going to have the same effect, and maybe even a better effect than me being in office one time. This is a generational effort. It’s all of us coming together. And there’s so many of us you can’t push us to the side. Fifty years ago you could. Now, you can’t.”  

The closer we get to political parity, the more women’s quality of life increases, both through public policy, and women being inspired by those in office.

This story appears in the October issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.