Utah Women 20/20: Improving The Lives Of Women Through Civic Engagement

10 hours ago

A report on the well-being of Utah women suggests civic engagement and political motivation could improve policies for women, children, and families.

In 2015 the Institutes for Women's Policy Research released a fact sheet outlining the well-being of women in Utah. A similar fact sheet was released in August 2018. Chandra Childers is a senior research scientist who helped prepare the 2018 Well-Being of Women in Utah fact sheet.

"We look at women's medium earnings, we look at the gender wage gap, and we look at poverty and opportunity" Childers said. "We look at health insurance coverage and what's going on with women-owned businesses. We look at health outcome."

Childers said the document gives insight on shared Utah values, providing a baseline comparison to explore policy changes to help improve lives. Single mothers, college students, and women business owners will benefit, she said, if policymakers and advocacy groups use the information. 

One of the more disturbing findings found by Childers and her team is that more and more Utah women report being depressed and struggling with health care and insurance needs. And, she said, Utah has one of the highest rates of suicide among women in the nation.

"We also saw an increase nationally, although nationally it's not as high as it is in Utah,” she said. “That is something that deserves great attention of what’s happening, what’s going on."

Organizations like YWCA Utah, local business owners, and state policymakers have traditionally used the list to direct efforts and advocate to eliminate racism and empower women. Now, they will include strategies to address the suicide problem.

"But I think there should be a greater emphasis on all areas in the political participation sphere, getting more women registered to vote, getting women voting at higher rates, getting more women to run for office so they can have their voices heard and women's preferences can be a part of social policy," Childers said.

To help empower women to participate fully in public life and civic leadership the YWCA Utah organized Real Women Run in 2011. The program, along with encouragement from some political parties, has led to an increase in the number of Utah women running for office in 2018. According to the Hinckley Institute of Politics, there was a 50 percent increase in women filing for state house, senate and congressional races this election year.

In Cache County, five women will be listed on the 2018 election ballot under the Democratic Party.

River Heights resident Rebecca Winstead and Nibley candidate Karina Andelin Brown are among Utah women whose names will be on the ballot. They gathered with other candidates over the weekend, piecing together jigsawed plywood cut in the shape of an ocean wave. 

"We're riding the blue wave and we are there to wash over Cache County and bring some more diversity to the candidates that are in the valley right now," Winstead said.

Several shades of blue paint with white accents are brushed over the wood to help create a beach themed USU Aggie 2018 Homecoming Parade float.  

"If we could play with power tools every day, I think everybody would campaign," Winstead said.

Brown said she is taking the opportunity to ride on the float to represent her party and to introduce herself to those she hopes to represent, especially women.

"I feel like the time is now for women to be more engaged and involved in all levels of our society, including politics,” Brown said. “We have a tendency to hold back and I think that we need to feel free to voice our concerns and our opinions and get involved.”

Jennifer Rourke and Marilyn Mecham will join Brown and Winstead as they wave their way down Logan’s main street. Rourke said civic engagement is nothing new to her. While in college she was a women and gender studies student.

"Just this year I pulled out my 1998 "Take Back The Night" t-shirt that I had made from college, that had people standing there holding hands asking people to take responsibility for our communities," Rourke said.

"I thought to myself, Oh my goodness, 20 years later this t-shirt still applies. I had it stuffed up there as a memento thinking that at some point we wouldn't have to civically engage and that at some point we would reach equality, and that at some point our voices would be valued," she shared. "Once we start showing that, other young women will follow suit.”

For Mecham, riding on a homecoming float to promote her politics isn't all that different from what she did 58 years ago. 

"And, I remember marching in the 1960s to achieve women's equality,” she said. “I totally will be involved civically as long as I breathe."

For the past 10 year’s democratic state lawmaker Becky Edwards has worked to bring about legislation to benefit women, children, and families. Her civic and political activity turned out to be part of a legacy that, as she recently learned, began with her great-great-grandfather. He was a politician who represented Cache County during the suffrage movement and supported the eventual passage of the 19th amendment, giving white women the right to vote.

"That's a connection that I see through the late 1800s as the forging of our state, clear until now, the voices that women use, and men. My own great-great-grandfather Moroni Price was involved in traveling with Emily Richards, and Martha Hughes Cannon and others, Emmeline B. Wells, to the World’s Fair to advocate for suffrage for women," Edwards said. "And, it is wonderful to see the impact of that. Utahans were really involved in that suffrage movement."

Edwards and her fellow representative Democrat Rebecca Chavez-Houck will retire from the Utah legislature in December. Both were honored recently by the YWCA Utah for their civic engagement and for giving voice to Utah women.

"And, so long after we come and go, guess who's still there making the difference, making their voices heard? The citizens, advocates, people who are committed to an issue, to an idea, who go up to the capital, who write to their legislators, to the elected officials and simply who vote," she said. "They're still around, they make the difference and that's what makes me incredibly optimistic for the future of our state."

Based on the well-being of Utah report there are reasons to be optimistic. Improvements in Utah policy have led to more women overcoming some aspects of poverty. And says Childers, Utah is making progress in educational attainment. More women than men are opening and operating more of the state’s small businesses.

The report also notes that finding a full-time job with benefits is still a challenge. If women in the state do find work, they are still being paid less than their male counterparts for the same work. Utah is also behind the national average when it comes to removing gaps in earnings and leadership for women of color.