I have had the honor of working with Wyoming high school students who participate in Girls and Boys State, a summer leadership and civics program. The kids run for state office, as well as draft and debate policy bills. The issues they choose are some of the most cutting and crucial topics of the day.
While the participants rave about the program and their experiences, I am the one who is truly impressed. These kids are our future, and I am in awe of their commitment and passion. My essay on “Hopes and Dreams for Wyoming’s Women and Our Future” is in the form of a response to a letter from the fictional Angelica, a Girls State delegate.
Hi Representative Connolly,
This is Angelica M., and I’m getting ready to attend Girls State. I am so excited! I’ve been active in my school’s student government and several clubs, and I had hoped to run for office here in Wyoming. But I have some concerns. In preparation, I’ve been studying Wyoming’s role in women’s suffrage.
At first, I was totally stoked and proud of our place in history, but then I learned of some of the warts surrounding the vote. I am disappointed that Native women and men could not vote, and that some of the representatives were pretty racist. That part of our history makes me mad.
I’ve also been thinking about my future and whether I should stay in Wyoming. I don’t like some of what I see regarding wages for women and other opportunities, and I have diabetes, so health care is a big concern. My best friend is gay and is often mocked. I don’t want him to live like that, and we have talked of moving together. Is Wyoming really the Equality State?
Do you have any ideas for bills for Girls State? What could really make a difference for our future? Should I stay and pursue my dreams, or should I just pack my bags?
First, congratulations on your acceptance to Girls State! It’s a great program, and I am sure that you will meet some wonderful other young women.
I agree with you about suffrage. We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors; some have made us proud, others not so much. I think it is our job to learn from that history by honoring the good and learning from the mistakes.
To be sure, I want you to make Wyoming your home. And I will do my best to convince you. I believe that our motto as the Equality State is not simply a recognition of the past, but a call to each and every one of us to live up to its vision, to work for its dream. Our ancestors did.
The true meaning of equality is ever-changing. Equality is dynamic, not static. It must be to recognize our changing world, and we, its changing citizens. That work is not always pretty and does not happen overnight. We need you as equality’s champion.
Wyomingites are at times stubborn (if not ornery), and perhaps wedded a bit too much to a mythical past. Our history is far more complicated than a simple feel-good story of suffrage or the iconic image of a rugged cowboy alone on the plains battling wind and rattlers. It is a history marred by failures, as well as successes, that no myth can erode. We learn from those mistakes, and we make our present and future better for it.
Alongside our historical cowboys and suffragettes, imagine today’s Wyomingite – a woman working at Walmart making ends meet for her family or the school’s custodian working two jobs. We can love them both, our history and our current neighbors, and plan our policies accordingly.
We all need quality health care. Regrettably, the health-care outcomes for women and children in the state are trending in the wrong direction: downward instead of up. Far too many people live in poverty, a term that does not adequately capture the realities of substandard housing, hunger, lack of mobility, and, most importantly, a lack of choices and opportunities.
You should not worry about the costs of treatment for your diabetes. No one should worry about the costs of cancer, or to get an MRI or a prescription filled for high blood pressure. We can do better. We can increase access to cervical cancer screening, the HPV vaccine, suicide prevention programs and primary care physicians.
We all need high-quality education. Our commitment to equity across the state and a constitutional mandate of a university “nearly free as possible” can make us proud. However, our growth and successes have stalled, and I am worried that we are not moving forward. Remember, the pursuit of equality means an obligation to make needed changes.
We need to expand educational opportunities to include high-quality preschool. We need to value our teachers and to recognize the challenges they face daily. We need programs, in school and out, for kids who are struggling. We need to recognize, honor and protect our gay kids, who far too often suffer the brunt of bullies.
Let’s show the world that we have made conscious, deliberate strides toward our motto of equality. We can do it with anti-discrimination legislation, by banning conversion therapy, and by building schools and facilities that recognize more than two genders. All our students should have the opportunity to graduate, pursue postsecondary education and to imagine a future in Wyoming. It takes political will and resources. These are our choices and you can help to shape and implement them.
We need an economy that works. I do not want you leaving the state to pursue your dreams. Instead, I imagine you and your Girls State class thriving as our next generation of leaders, teachers, electricians, hair dressers and chefs. We need an economy that is built for you.
The wage gap between Wyoming’s men and women continues to be one of the very worst in the nation. Turning a blind eye to that reality hurts us, and has prevented us from hard decisions to assure pay equity. Simply telling women to work in traditionally male occupations is not the solution. We need an economy that values and pays good wages in health, education and social services, as much as in construction, mining and manufacturing. Wage transparency will help, as will raising the minimum wage. Other states have moved the needle on pay equity; we can, too.
Angelica, I agree with you. The notion of equality in Wyoming is a beloved core value. Its practice, however, needs work. You are up to the task. Make Wyoming your choice, your home. You are our daughter. We care for each other.
Will you do me a favor? Each decade, send me an update. Tell me about your family, the work you have been doing, the policies pursued, the successes and failures. Have we moved that equality needle on health care, education and the economy? Have we reduced poverty? Are our neighbors safer and healthier? When we get to the celebration of the 200th year of suffrage, can we look back and know that we did our best? The Equality State demands it of us. Have a great Girls State, and I so look forward to hearing from you!
Representative Cathy Connolly