As senior policy advisor to the Equality State Policy Center, I’ll spend 2020 launching a statewide pilot project that examines women’s roles in Wyoming: how women drive the economy, access services and participate in leadership — as well as the places where women are left out or overlooked. What I learn in the process, I’ll share in this column, Equity State.
I’ll be writing about the ways that data about men and women can help improve the impact and efficiency of programs. Or places where smart policy decisions didn’t include women, like in Wyoming’s Bootcamp Program in the criminal justice system. I’ll explore the barriers that women face accessing services (in contexts that often aren’t built for them) and the benefits accrued to all Wyoming residents when we change this.
And, because this is about making things better for everyone, I’ll offer suggestions for possible improvements.
I want to start with the new RepresentWomen’s 2019 Gender Parity Index. That nonpartisan national review of all 50 states gives Wyoming a grade of D for women’s representation in elected office.
But there are some bright spots. For example, Wyoming’s lone congressional district has been represented by a woman since 1995.
The three women we’ve sent recently mark a new epoch in Wyoming’s history of representation. Congresswoman Barbara Cubin’s election was the exception; collectively, Congresswomen Cubin, Cynthia Lummis and Liz Cheney have turned it into the rule.
Unfortunately, the report also notes that “the state has never sent a woman to the U.S. Senate.”
If Cheney runs for Senate against Lummis — virtually guaranteeing that Wyoming will send its first woman to the U.S. Senate — there is the opportunity for women to step forward and run for the open U.S. House seat. Two birds, one stone.
When we shift over to the executive branch, historically only a small fraction of the Big Five — governor, secretary of state, superintendent of public instruction, auditor, treasurer — have been women, though it is good news that currently two out of five of those electeds are women.
But the relative scarcity and recent decline of women in elected office at the state levels cannot be overlooked or its importance overstated. Women make up less than 16% of our state legislators.
When you look at states with greater gender parity in their legislatures, the number of women in elected office has been shown to have a positive impact on issues that affect women. Those are policies that also benefit families and communities, including health care, child care, safety and education. They also tend to be policies that have positive economic impact, something I’ll discuss in a later column.
Equal representation isn’t a lot better at the local level in Wyoming. The report focuses on mayors of Wyoming’s largest cities. We can celebrate that the mayors of Gillette and Cheyenne are women.
Meanwhile, only 16 of 93 county commissioners are women. Teton County’s own Board of County Commissioners Chairwoman Natalia D. Macker is the first woman ever recognized as Commissioner of the Year by the Wyoming County Commissioners Association.
What isn’t readily available is data on other local elected officials like sheriff, assessor, county attorney and clerk. Locally, the assessor and the clerk are positions to which our community has long elected women. Teton County elected its first female county attorney in 2018. Meanwhile, the sheriff has only ever been a man, a situation that is true across Wyoming.
So what can we do?
There are some free and easy ways to start to change the complexion of leadership in Wyoming.
One simple way is to increase the number of women on appointed boards and commissions. Seats on local boards are appointed by the county commissioners and on statewide boards by the governor. They offer an excellent way to become involved with pressing community or state issues. They can also act as a great springboard for public service and elected office.
Right now, on average, only about 1 in 3 of these statewide appointments are women. Two notable examples from other states show how Wyoming might achieve parity on appointed boards: The state of Iowa passed legislation requiring parity. In Los Angeles, Mayor Garcetti issued an executive order and achieved parity in five years, which has, in turn, led to more women running for office.
These boards are a great way for private citizens to engage with public service. It is a simple and effective way to change the landscape.
Here are a few other things we can all do to make a difference:
• Attend and participate in public meetings.
• Vote in every election.
• Notice and talk about the roles women play in our community — and where women are (and sometimes are not) represented.
And, last but not least:
• Read this column on the first Wednesday of every month in 2020. Take part in the conversation.
As a community and a state we can’t change what we don’t talk about. Together, we can change the conversation. When we do, everyone in the Equality State stands to benefit.