As Utahns we associate the phrase, “This is the Place” with Brigham Young and the first wagon train entering the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. I can picture that phrase getting passed from wagon to wagon, person to person, and wonder how those words affected my many greats-grandmother, Elvira Pamela Mills, who was among those early pioneers. I imagine she took them as a promise that safety, opportunity and thriving communities lay ahead. 

Recently I had the opportunity to make a professional shift and joined the faculty of the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University. As director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project, now housed at USU, it thrills me to see what women of this great state have accomplished (and will continue to) over the past 173 years. So it’s no surprise that my favorite new podcast, executive produced by USU professor Patrick Mason, is “This is Her Place,” which highlights remarkable women, past and present. 

The first episode focuses on a pair of law enforcers, Utah’s first female sheriff, Rosie Rivera, and Utah’s first female deputy sheriff, Claire Ferguson, appointed in 1897. The episode’s title, “Don’t try to be a man,” comes from advice that has guided Rivera’s tenure. A teen mom, a high school dropout and an onion field worker, Rivera refused to give up on her dream of being a cop. And at 5-foot-3, she has relied on skills she learned as a mother to persuade people to go along with her. The black belt in taekwondo is back-up she rarely uses.

Unlike Rivera, Ferguson came from high society and was a suffragist. But she also saw her place in law enforcement, stating: “If a woman has the proper amount of self-reliance and energy I cannot see why she should not be perfectly able to carry out her orders as well as a man.” The papers were obsessed with her and she was described as much by her appearance as by her skills (some things never change).

In the second episode, hosts Tom Williams and Naomi Watkins highlight three prominent public health workers, Angela Dunn, Annie Dodge Wauneka and Martha Hughes Cannon. It’s fun to learn new things about the two well-known figures, Dunn, our state epidemiologist on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, and Cannon, the first female state senator in the U.S. But the real delight is getting to know Wauneka, a tribal elder and public health advocate who worked in the Navajo Nation in the mid-20th century. “This is Her Place” delves into such a wonderful array of diverse characters; it will surely shake up your traditional notions of what a Utah woman looks like. 

The podcast’s title, “This is Her Place,” brings to mind that just as Utah was a land of promise to the early pioneers, it can be a fertile place for women’s leadership and growth today. It also sounds like a response to anyone who dares to limit girls and women, to those who try to make them take up less space and “put them in their place.” When I was younger, I had people tell me that I didn’t need advanced education to pursue my purpose and calling, and I like to imagine myself saying, “But this IS my place!” And, because this is my place, and Elvira’s, and yours — it is big enough for all of us.

Dr. Susan R. Madsen is the Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership in the Jon M Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.

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