CASPER – For many women, success in one area can feel like a failure in another. It’s as if being a good mother means not fully showing up at work, or as if having a successful career equals a deficit as a mother, friend or daughter.
But those are false dichotomies, even if the most successful Wyoming women fall prey to them.
“The definition of success changes and vacillates for me, depending on which hat I am wearing. What I have noticed, though, is that when I am feeling successful in one role, I feel like I am a total failure in all of the other roles,” Michelle Sullivan, a current member of the Public Service Commission and University of Wyoming trustee said during a panel discussion on civil leadership at the Wyoming Women’s Expo on Friday in Casper.
“For me, recognizing that the first part of success is accepting that we are all human, and we need to be kind to ourselves – that is really an important part of success for me, when I don’t have that voice inside my head saying, ‘You are a terrible mother, you didn’t make it to the basketball game,’” Sullivan said.
Years ago, Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, who has been instrumental in organizing the annual Leap into Leadership conference, which encourages women to run for office, said she once offhandedly called herself a “bad mom” to former Democratic Rep. Mary Throne.
“I have to thank Mary, because years ago, I was chatting with her about something, and I said I was missing something for my kids. I said, ‘Oh, I am a bad mom,’” Ellis said. “And she said, ‘Don’t say that. You’ve got to stop talking that way.’ And I stopped that day.”
Ellis said she has been gone most of this week, and she has missed events in her children’s lives over the years. But that day, she realized her time in the Legislature is a gift, and a choice. She is surrounded by supportive people who make serving in the Legislature possible, and she has to be comfortable with her life choices.
“Why beat yourself up over things you can’t change, and things you chose?” Ellis said. “It is really about being disciplined, about not doing that to yourself.”
Ellis, Throne and Sullivan, along with former Casper mayor Kenyne Humphry, were part of the panel discussion on civil leadership during the 2019 Wyoming Women’s Expo. The Expo is in its 15th year, and is celebrating the 150th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Wyoming this year. The Expo continues today with a trade show at the Casper Events Center.
Throne said that success cannot be defined solely by the results of an election. Throne was a 2018 Democratic candidate for governor of Wyoming, but lost to Gov. Mark Gordon.
“In terms of how you define success if you are interested in elected office or politics, success – as I am here to show you – cannot be solely defined as winning an election,” Throne said. “If you want to run for office, you have to be prepared to lose.”
Throne said she has been asked if she regrets running, to which she always replies, no, she does not.
“I loved running for governor … even though it wasn’t the outcome I wanted,” Throne said. “I think I define success by knowing that I went for it, and I feel like I ran a good campaign. I didn’t say anything I didn’t believe, and maintained a good relationship with the person who won.”
Ellis said that she once took her daughter to the state Capitol to see that there was one outgoing female legislator. Her daughter asked her a single question.
“She said, ‘Do they let girls be in the Senate?’ And it killed me,” Ellis said. “There was one, and it was Bernadine Craft, and she had just announced that she was retiring. This idea that there would maybe be a chamber of 30 men really didn’t settle well with me.”
Ellis said she does not consider herself a feminist activist, but said she does think it is important to have more women in the Legislature. Throne agreed.
“Don’t be afraid to put your name out there,” she said. “There is a body of research that suggests that women wait to be asked to run for office … Don’t wait for somebody to ask you. Put yourself out there, and that is same for boards and commissions. If it is something you want to do, go for it.”