Closing the legislative gender gap isn’t easy in Wyoming

By Kerry Drake
— November 18, 2014

During this year’s general election, I interviewed about two dozen state legislative candidates. I was struck by the high number of male Republican candidates who said they don’t believe a gender wage gap exists in Wyoming.

Kerry Drake

A few acknowledged the fact that women in the Equality State earn less than 70 cents for every dollar men make, but didn’t think there was much, if anything, state government could do to close the gap.

Since GOP men overwhelmingly control both houses of the Wyoming Legislature, don’t expect any action on the issue until more women occupy seats in the House and Senate. Unfortunately, in Wyoming, the trend is going the wrong way: There will only be 11 women in the 60-member House, and only one woman in the 30-member Senate next year.

That’s a decrease of one female legislator in each chamber. Women in the Legislature hit their peak in 1985-86, when they represented 25 percent of state lawmakers; their numbers will fall to about 13 percent in 2015.

Regardless of party, women legislators understand that the gender wage gap is real. The middle-aged, conservative white guys in charge tend to look at the issue narrowly, through their own experience, and claim the women in whatever field they’re in always make the same amount of money they do.

Their second mistaken observation is usually that women don’t want to take higher-paying jobs in the energy industry, and that’s the only factor that skews the numbers in the state.

But as national studies conducted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) show, women face a pay gap in nearly every occupation. “From elementary and middle school teachers to computer programmers, women are paid less than men in female-dominated, gender-balanced and male-dominated occupations,” the AAUW says.

The gender wage gap is far from the only issue of interest to women lawmakers, of course. Nationally, women state legislators sponsor more bills relating to social issues and civil rights than their male colleagues.

But the disparity in pay is an issue that parallels what happens when one party dominates a state’s politics, as Republicans have for the past half-century in Wyoming. There is a lack of diversity in opinions and solutions about state problems, and those in power don’t actually have to consider what the minority thinks.

In short, whether it’s Democrats or women who are in the extreme minority, it leaves a significant portion of the population effectively without representation. In the case of women, it just doesn’t make sense they total 52 percent of eligible voters yet don’t have a louder voice in the state’s lawmaking process.

How did we get into this situation? The number of women legislators had been steadily growing until the early 1990s, when Wyoming made the change from multi-member districts to single-member districts, where candidates went head-to-head. In a trend repeated in most states, women did better in races that had several candidates elected to represent a district.

There were legitimate, pro-democratic reasons why the switch to single-member districts was made in most states. It was found to be in compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act, which was used to determine congressional districts, and easily won state court approval. While it made representation more direct, since there was a single legislator from each district, it had the drawback of drawing fewer candidates, especially women.

It would be hard to argue for a return to multi-member districts, and experiences in other states show that such a move isn’t necessary. Colorado, which also has single-member districts, leads the nation in women state legislators, at 41 percent.

This isn’t the first time Colorado has been ahead of Wyoming in electing women lawmakers. In 1894, Colorado elected the first three women to a state legislature in the nation. It wasn’t until 1910 that Wyoming followed suit and elected Mary Godat Bellamy, a Laramie Democrat, to its Legislature. She was the second-highest vote-getter of the five elected from her district.

Not only has Colorado elected far more female state legislators than Wyoming, the women it selects have also risen higher in leadership. Democrats in the Colorado House recently chose the state’s first female leadership team by selecting women as House speaker and majority leader.

Does our southern neighbor have a secret in getting more women to run for office? The reason seems to be largely because it has actively worked to recruit female candidates longer than Wyoming has, and both its Republican and Democratic parties have made it a priority.

A historical trend nationally has been that women prefer to be asked to run for office by a party, group or influential individuals. Men are generally seen as more politically ambitious, and likely to use the recognition they’ve gained through their profession or public service to seek office on their own.

The lopsided nature of politics in Wyoming, with Republicans having such a large majority in not only the Legislature but also complete control of the congressional delegation and the five elected state offices, is also a factor. Nationally, the number of Democratic women state legislators has been surging while Republican women’s numbers have been dropping, but it’s much harder for Democrats, men or women, to get elected in Wyoming.

Wyoming has a bipartisan Women’s Legislative Caucus, which began in 2007. One of its top priorities is to encourage women to run for office, and it hosts an annual Leap Into Leadership (LIL) event at the Legislature every February. Rep.-Elect JoAnn Dayton, a Rock Springs Democrat, is a recent graduate and fan of LIL who will take office in January after defeating Rep. Stephen Watt (who, by the way, doesn’t believe there’s a gender wage gap in Wyoming).

What is now known as the Wyoming Council for Women’s Issues was created by Gov. Cliff Hansen in 1965. Despite its name, its focus isn’t directly related to lobbying for specific women’s issues. Today, the 13-member council is under the Wyoming Business Council and annually selects a Wyoming Woman of Distinction.

Perhaps Wyoming could take a page from the independent Women’s Lobby of Colorado, which has been an effective organization. It had an agenda of 16 bills it promoted during the 2014 session. Eleven passed, on such diverse issues as wage protection, affordable housing, sex crimes, breast and cervical cancer treatment, adult education, human trafficking and juvenile justice.

A similar effort in Wyoming could become both a place for women to hone their leadership and lobbying skills as they consider whether to run for office. I can envision a separate funding arm that could raise money for female candidates.

It might be the quickest route to changing the make-up of the Wyoming Legislature from 87 percent male to at least closer to parity. Research by various groups has pinpointed 30 percent membership as the target for women to have a meaningful opportunity to get their ideas heard and approved in state legislatures.

Mary Bellamy, Wyoming’s first female legislator, once said in a speech that men “are willing to accord us equal rights with themselves, to consider what we want, and if it seems desirable, to grant it.”

One hundred and four years after she was elected, it seems Wyoming men still need some help getting a better handle on that “if it seems desirable, grant it” part.

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Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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