Wyoming’s history of making headway for female political leadership is notable. It began in 1869 when Wyoming granted women the right to vote, becoming the Equality State. Women in Wyoming maintained momentum for nearly a century thereafter. In 1894, Wyoming became one of the first states to elect a woman to state office. In 1924, Nellie Tayloe Ross was elected as Wyoming’s governor, becoming the nation’s first female governor. In the mid-1980s, women held nearly a quarter of state legislative seats.
Now, Wyoming ranks dead last in the nation for female representation in its state legislature. Men form 89 percent of House and Senate seats in Wyoming. Women make up the other 11 percent, a shockingly low statistic in comparison to the national average of 25 percent. In 2008, 23 percent of women held state legislative seats in Wyoming. In less than 10 years, the state legislature lost nearly half its female elected officials. What happened?
I could use the rest of my space writing out a number of potential explanations, but I’ll be honest — fixating on Wyoming’s disappointing statistics for female representation and closely examining the “why” hinders change. At this point, the “what” and the “why” are not nearly as important as the “how” — how do we move forward? How do we create more room for female leadership in elected office?
The answer is loud and clear: women must run. When women run for office, they perform just as well as their male counterparts. That’s not to say that every woman must run for a seat in the state legislature. Though the lack of women in elected office in Wyoming is most evident in the legislature, women are also underrepresented in local offices across the state. Women make up roughly 19 percent of city council members, 15 percent of county commissioners, and 17 percent of mayors. When women fill more seats at the local level, we will likely see more women in the long-run holding state legislative seats.
National organizations like She Should Run and Vote Run Lead provide important resources and support for women considering a run for office. Thousands of women across the country came knocking on the doors of these organizations and others like them in record numbers last year. More women have announced their plans to run for office in 2018 than ever before, and several nonprofit organizations are preparing them to do so. There are also organizations in Wyoming that support women within the state. Wyoming Women Rise and the Wyoming Women’s Legislative Caucus are two organizations in Wyoming that encourage women to run for office through educational workshops and trainings. National and local organizations will play an important role for women considering running this year, but women must first seize the opportunity to step outside their comfort zones, serve their neighbors, and make a difference in their communities.
I encourage all the women reading this to consider running for office this year. For others, there are additional ways to support women’s political leadership: volunteer for a campaign, encourage the inspiring women around you to run, or donate to a local nonprofit that supports women’s leadership.
When women gain greater representation in elected offices throughout the state, the impact will be powerful. Women in elected office tend to bring unique perspectives to issues and have a different style of negotiating than their male counterparts, which diversifies and strengthens our government. In addition, when women have equal representation in government, issues that specifically impact them are likely to receive necessary attention. The gender pay gap is one example, which is the worst in Wyoming of any other state. Wyoming has also failed to prioritize other issues like early childhood education, paid maternity leave, reproductive health, and domestic violence and sexual assault. When women are not underrepresented, issues that disproportionately impact them fall by the wayside.
Women made significant strides toward gender equality in Wyoming in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the 21st century we can and must do better. Women are underrepresented in elected offices throughout Wyoming and especially in the state legislature where only 11 percent of women hold House and Senate seats combined. We must encourage the women around us to run for office — but more importantly, women must run. Change will not come until women take the lead in building a future where their voices are heard.