The Wyoming State Capitol is seen on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019, in downtown Cheyenne. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

When it comes to women serving in government, Wyoming is a state of firsts. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the country’s first female governor, justice of the peace and bailiff all came from the Equality State.

After setting the standard for female representation in American government, however, Wyoming has fallen behind most other states.

There are 14 women in this year’s session of the Wyoming State Legislature, which accounts for just 15.6% of the Legislature’s 90 seats. That statistic puts Wyoming in the bottom five states for female participation rates in state legislatures, according to the Center for American Women in Politics.

Wyoming also lags behind the national average for women in state legislatures: 28.9%. That number saw a 3% uptick from 2018 to 2019 following an election cycle in which a record number of women also were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Why so few women?

Rep. Sara Burlingame, D-Cheyenne, who was elected last year, said she hadn’t given much serious consideration to running for office until the 2016 election.

“The 2016 election inspired a lot of us to think democracy needed to be more of a participatory event, like democracy was not on autopilot mode,” Burlingame said. “We felt like if we weren’t being represented, we should try our best to share our message.”

Women made substantial political gains in the 2018 elections, but that surge of women doesn’t tell the full story, CAWP Director Debbie Walsh said.

“We heard so much in the 2018 elections about this surge of women candidates and the increase of women at every level of office,” Walsh said. “And while that was true, it was largely or really almost exclusively on the Democratic side, so it’s not progress that we’ve seen across the parties.”

Women are less likely to receive encouragement to run for office from others, according to a 2012 study by the Women and Politics Institute at American University. While 49% of men were urged to run for office by current politicians, 39% of women reported receiving the same level of support.

Even for a woman like Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, who was already a community activist and university professor before seeking office, the decision didn’t become clear until another woman involved in politics asked her to.

“When I was asked to run, one of the things that occurred to me was, you know, put your money where your mouth is,” Connolly said. “In Wyoming, you can make a difference.”

Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, said she decided to run after the former Republican in her seat, Tony Ross, decided not to pursue reelection.

“I had a positive experience overall, with support from men and women in Laramie County and throughout the state,” Nethercott said. “I can only speak very highly of it.”

Nethercott noted how Wyoming’s geography could potentially deter women from seeking statewide office.

“The fact that Cheyenne is located in an isolated area of the state, in the corner, there’s a geographic challenge for many women to be that far away – just the distance from family and other obligations, I think that might cause a deterrence,” Nethercott said. “It’s easier to have a business or have a family when the government is within your own local community.”

Walsh agreed, noting how the Wyoming Legislature being part-time can be a hurdle for women.

“In many states, you see a concentration of women who represent the area either in or around the state capital, because it is, in fact, easier,” Walsh said. “Women still are the primary caregivers at home. They often have a full-time job outside the home, and then being in the Legislature, in effect, becomes a third full-time job. Because even though it’s not a full-time legislature, the work of being a legislator doesn’t end when they’re not in session.”

A few female candidates have already announced plans to run for House seats in 2020, though in line with Walsh’s point, they mainly hail from southeast Wyoming.

Inside the Capitol

Wyoming has two female lawmakers in leaderships positions: Connolly, who is the House Minority Leader, and Sen. Liisa Anselmi-Dalton, D-Rock Springs, who is the Senate Minority Whip.

Connolly, who has served in the House since 2009, said it can be difficult for female legislators to get their ideas across.

“Me and other women, we have joked about things like we go to the microphone or in a committee meeting, and we say X, Y or Z. Then, three speakers later, a man says the exact same thing, and everybody nods, when you have just said it,” Connolly said. “We look at each other and roll our eyes like ‘You have got to be kidding.’ That has happened, and it happens across party lines. This is this is not a Democrat or Republican thing.

“Let’s face it, politicians are probably some of the best mansplainers ... and ‘best’ with great big quotation marks around it,” she said.

Nethercott, who serves as chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she has been supported by all of her legislative colleagues, male or female.

“I’m a chairman early on in my first term, and that speaks well to the leadership of the Senate, who are all men, to make the decision to put me in that position,” Nethercott said. “I think that speaks well to them, and I am honored by that opportunity. I truly haven’t experienced any negativity.”

The number of women in the Legislature can influence the kind of legislation that gets passed, Wyoming Women’s Action Network founder Jen Simon said. In Nevada, 52.3% of the members of the state legislature are women, and Simon said the state serves as a great example of what happens when equal gender representation is achieved.

“In their most recent legislative session, they passed a long-overlooked gender wage gap bill, bills on sexual assault, intimate partner violence and the processing of rape kits,” Simon said in an email. “Oftentimes, these are bills that don’t get the traction that they should or are subject to more hypothetical debate, because the representatives aren’t familiar with the impacts.”

Walsh said her center’s research also shows women are more likely to cross party lines, partly because of the occasionally contrasting reasons men and women enter politics.

“When we ask men and women why they’ve run for office in the first place, women are more likely to tell us that they are there because of a problem,” Walsh said. “When we asked the same question of men who serve in legislatures, they’re more likely to tell us that they’re there because they’ve always had an interest in politics and the process.”

Moving forward

There is no perfect formula for Wyoming to get more women in politics, but it starts with taking a more aggressive approach, Simon said.

“In Colorado, they’ve been working thoughtfully over the last two decades to make structural changes and to champion women running for office at all levels of government,” Simon said. “That has moved them to relative parity in the last couple of years.”

Colorado has the second-highest level of female participation in its legislature at 47%, trailing only Nevada.

Frank Eathorne, chairman of the Wyoming Republican Party, said the party hasn’t fully evaluated its recruitment efforts, though it hopes to place more focus on it in the future.

“Women are an inherent part of everything we do,” Eathorne said. “It’s really not necessarily an evaluation point, but it could be.”

Eathorne noted the party celebrated women of Wyoming during its 2018 state convention, as all of the guests of honor and speakers were women.

“We’re going to continue a similar theme to celebrate suffrage for the 2020 state convention,” Eathorne said.

The State Central Committee, which acts as the party’s governing body in Wyoming, includes spots for both a man and a woman from each county.

“We’ve got a pretty good balance, plus ... about six, maybe seven of the county chairmen are women,” Eathorne said. “There’s definitely no formal target, and I think that’s because ... if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. Women are inherent in our system.”

In reaction to Wyoming’s bottom-five ranking, Eathorne said it “sounds like something we need to pay attention to.”

“I see no resistance or problem whatsoever with making that a higher priority,” Eathorne said.

Even with greater recruitment efforts, it’s important to consider which women are being included in those efforts, Burlingame said.

“When we say we need women, we need women so that every little girl in Wyoming can look to the Legislature and see themselves represented,” Burlingame said. “So then folks, particularly folks who have been marginalized, understand that the Legislature and seats of power are not just for the wealthy, the entitled, the enabled, but they’re for people who look like them, who have had experiences like they’ve had, who know what it’s like to balance medical costs and grocery costs.”

From Connolly’s view, it might be worth taking a step back and considering the barriers – the time commitment for travel, limited child-care services, low per diem payments for legislators – that could be removed to boost political involvement.

“If we want a legislature that looks far more like Wyoming, we need to think about how we have structured the Legislature itself, so that we can think about it, who has the ability to serve,” Connolly said. “These are heavy lifts.”

Tom Coulter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at tcoulter@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3124. Follow him on Twitter at @tomcoulter_.

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