The statue of Esther Morris stands next to Chief Washakie in the basement of the Capitol building in Cheyenne. (Kerry Drake)

The Wyoming Council for Women’s Issues — established in 1965 by Gov. Clifford Hansen — is a 14-member council with representation from each of the state’s nine judicial districts, four at-large members and the chief executive officer of the Wyoming Business Council. The governor appoints council members. The council receives its funding from the Legislature. Its members are volunteers. Its work is public. Its research speaks to the direct impact of 50% of the population of the Equality State, and therefore for every person in Wyoming. 

On Aug. 27, the chairwoman of the Wyoming Council for Women’s Issues testified in front of the Joint Committee on Minerals, Business & Economic Development. Jennifer Wilmetti was there to present the statutorily mandated report about the work of the WCWI, a report on the status of women in Wyoming. 

Before Wilmetti started her testimony, Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Greear (R.-Worland) had to step away. He handed control of the proceedings  to Co-Chairman Sen. Jim Anderson (R.-Casper) who said, “Let’s try to get this done before he gets back.” 

This set a tone about whether or not the forthcoming information was important to the leader of the committee. Wilmetti hadn’t even started, and already her work had been dismissed. Already, she was on the defensive. 

But what has garnered more attention was what Anderson said next to Wilmetti. 

As her slides were slowly loading onto Zoom, Sen. Anderson said, “We’d rather look at you.” 

At least seven complaints have since been filed to legislative leadership against Anderson, who told the Casper Star-Tribune that he did not intend to offend and his comments were taken “in the wrong context.”

Wyoming is unique because of our spirit, or untamed mentality and a resounding respect that we have for one another. We have the ability to look someone in their eye and shake their hand, and to engage in civil discourse despite where we fall along partisan lines. Wyomingites may not always agree, but we listen. 

We take honor and dignity in our words and our actions. We are a sparsely populated state and with that comes a unique accountability to what we do and say and how we treat one another. 

Wilmetti was quoted in the Casper Star Tribune as saying, “I deflected it the best I could. But it was an unfortunate comment to make to a woman presenting to a committee full of men about women’s issues.”

This stands as a clear example of the ways in which powerful men sometimes feel comfortable marking public space as “not-intended-for-certain-people.” This isn’t about privilege or the “woman card.” Anderson will never be a woman testifying before our legislature and will never have to thread the performance needle through which women have to enter the people’s house. 

Don’t smile too much, you won’t be taken seriously. Don’t appear too stern, you’ll look like a bitch. Watch your tone, don’t want to come across the wrong way. Dress professionally but don’t look too attractive. Don’t dress too slouchy, you won’t look professional. This shouldn’t be normal and is not OK. Shame and embarrassment cannot be the mindset of our women who want to testify. 

The ethical imperative of our legislature is to resist and condemn any hint of disrespect, to anyone. For Anderson to justify his actions as growing from the old-fashioned way his mother raised him with, is ludicrous. He wasn’t holding the door open for a woman, he was subjugating her before she even opened her mouth — substantiated later by his sexualized notion of her. 

Do our voices matter? Or are we here for aesthetic pleasure or to meet a quota?

And, though there are still plenty of people who said, “I’ve heard worse,” or “boys will be boys” or just generally shrugged — or, perhaps echoed  Anderson’s later comments that he considered it a compliment and the failure to interpret it as one is a generational challenge — seven people have filed written complaints. Several news outlets covered it. And many people pointed out that this is, after all, the Equality State. Everyone should be welcome.  

The Wyoming Legislature belongs to the people of Wyoming. 

In a state where a woman is far more likely to be a victim of domestic violence or workplace harassment than she is to be elected to our legislature, we can no longer afford to be bystanders of the “Anderson effect.” The implication of a man in a power position so casually and callously marginalizing a woman in such an eloquent good-ole-boy way cannot be tolerated. Silence conveys submission and consent. 

Gender equality is essential to Wyoming. Nonetheless, even in the Equality State, you’d be hard-pressed to find a woman who has not been harassed or diminished in the workplace. If our legislators are our representatives, then they must be representative of us. This is about more than inept adjectives like “far right” or “progressive.” 

We are a free people whose inherent power comes from above and representation of us should be not just on issues, but on our respect and love for one another. Additionally, the correction must be as public as the offense. Although senior leadership has the ability to carry out private reprimand, they must consider transparency and the message their actions also send to the citizens of our state, including women who want to have a bigger voice on the issues that impact them. (See the Legislature’s sexual harassment policy, beginning on page 24 of the Management Council Policies)

Women in Wyoming are vastly underrepresented in local and state-level elected offices, especially on our county commissions and in our State Legislature, where there are just 14 women out of the 90 members of the House and Senate. A recent report by RepresentWomen gave Wyoming a grade of “D” for its representation by women. 

And because of the gender composition of the State Legislature, legislative committees can often be 100% male — or include only one or two women. Minerals, Business & Economic Development Committee has only one female member, Rep. Shelly Duncan. Joint Appropriations — the powerful committee that works on the state budget — has no female members. 

Speaking to the Casper Star Tribune about Anderson’s remarks,  Duncan said, “When it first happened, I was shocked. Then I was frustrated. Respectful men have to step up and say something, because me being the only female on the committee is a double-edged sword. If I say something, I can either come across as weak, or I can come across as something else. If I have leadership aspirations, I could be punished. I can be an aggressor if I speak up. We still have that cross to bear. But after the meeting, I was frustrated at myself, because I actually condoned the behavior, and I contributed to the culture by being silent.”

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This isn’t just “the way it is.” When women in power weigh the risk of speaking up, knowing the reality that their words may not affect the issue at hand but will negatively impact her career, it is no surprise that the culture in our state doesn’t improve for women. We must be better allies. We must showcase our commitment. Leadership must demonstrate clear inclusion of women. We must have diverse voices at the table. 

We are asking a small number of women to carry the burden for all women. 

The report that Wilmetti presented to Minerals on behalf of WCWI included survey data showing that women across Wyoming have specific concerns about the lack of women in elected office and lack of policies that support women. This further demonstrates how imperative it is that we elect more women. That more women serve on committees. That more women testify. That we make space for all people in our state to access our state’s government.

Our state is facing unprecedented challenges. And it will take every one of us participating, working together across party, ideology and gender to make our future all that it can be. To the legislators who are respectful of all voices, and there are many, we see you and appreciate you.

We hope that you will help others see us, too. 

To our fellow Wyoming women, we encourage you to get involved, whether that’s writing your legislators, doing advocacy work, running for office or simply casting your vote. You matter.

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  1. WYOFILE: “Senator’s comments expose problem of female underrepresentation”

    Men making decisions about the health and welfare of women in Wyoming is a recipe for dysfunction. Yep, more women with the power to actually affect policy would be good. Run for office.

    WYOFILE: “Do our voices matter? Or are we here for aesthetic pleasure or to meet a quota?”

    “Matter”: Yes.
    “Quota”: Yes.
    “Aesthetic Pleasure”: I doubt that crossed the mind of a single person when selecting people for the council but attractive people are more likely to be selected by women and men for any position. Women can be just as shallow and sexist.

    WYOFILE: “Nonetheless, even in the Equality State, you’d be hard-pressed to find a woman who has not been harassed or diminished in the workplace.”

    Men and women have been harassed or diminished in the workplace since the beginning of workplaces. Men and women have debased their outside social interactions to a point that it bleeds over into the workplace like fresh water flowing into salt water. I have no doubt that some women would behave just as badly as the men in question if the tables were turned. Some people just aren’t workplace professionals.

    Ask any attractive man if he has had women make inappropriate comments or inappropriate overtures in the workplace. I have had women slap my butt, put their hand on my chest, ask for sexual favors, engage in sexist comments about men, objectify other men, etc. Women’s social media accounts are full of behavior, comments, and pictures that are NSFW. Movies, TV, internet, newspapers thrive on that stuff. Again, it makes its way into the workplace. The idea that the workplace will be free of the stupidities outside of the workplace is unrealistic even if it is a worthy goal.

    WYOFILE: “Don’t smile too much, you won’t be taken seriously. Don’t appear too stern, you’ll look like a bitch. Watch your tone, don’t want to come across the wrong way. Dress professionally but don’t look too attractive. Don’t dress too slouchy, you won’t look professional. This shouldn’t be normal and is not OK.

    Seems like someone is reading too much into actions of council members.

    All that aside, it reminds me of secondary-school interactions.

    I tend to think that the outrage over first-world problems like this is overblown (especially with the over-analysis done here on WyoFile). Men and women can behave better. And should. Sometimes it just requires some teachable moments.

    Given the fact that some “2.2 billion people around the world do not have safely managed*drinking water services, 4.2 billion people do not have safely managed sanitation services, and 3 billion lack basic handwashing facilities”, the harm done here is magnified out of proportion.

    Almost every day can be an insult to your character, intelligence, and dreams. White women in Wyoming complaining about boorish men and extrapolating all sorts of harm and evil intentions is probably a life billions of people the world over would favor in a heartbeat compared to what they put up with now. A woman can be stoned to death for adultery in Saudi Arabia.

  2. Jen and Cassie, thank you both so much for speaking with such clarity on this issue. I appreciate that you took the time to lay out exactly what that comment means in the context in which it was stated. I wonder how many men and women still don’t get it and think that the 7 filed complaints are little more than clamoring for more political correctness. That attitude continues to frustrate me. I am willing to be that Senator Anderson still believes that he did nothing wrong and thinks that this is completely blown out of proportion. I would love to hear Senator Anderson tell Josh Dorrell that he would rather look at him during a presentation instead of the slides. Do you think that would raise some eyebrows?. C’mon Jim, a compliment is a compliment!

  3. Anderson’s comments that his remarks were taken in “the wrong context” needs to be amended to “were
    WRONG”. Period. Wyoming is so far from the Equality state it is embarassing.
    This article runs neck-to-neck in offensive Wyoming behavior with the millions being thrown at coal by our government. Coal has been declining since Nixon folks, and half our residents don’t even know who he was.
    Our funding needs to go to healthcare and education rather than being wasted on coal.

  4. Interesting as I read this on heals of Wyoming Republican Party censuring Natrona County Committeewoman JoAnn True for helping to found a PAC (Cowgirl Run Fund) that supports ALL women (non-partisan) seeking to run for public office at all levels. Because this fund made contributions to women of both parties – sometimes running again each other which is not uncommon for many PAC’s, one has to question if this wasn’t purely a gender issue…either that the fund supports women, or the founders were women.
    I was actually repulsed by Marti Halverson, the party’s outgoing national committeewoman and a former Wyoming legislator, who wrote an op-ed appearing to defend the censure by claiming women’s issues are will represented in the Legislature because all the men are “husbands, son’s, fathers” of women. I’m sorry, is this 1820? I always laugh when Wyoming represents itself as the “Equality” state – no, not yet.

    1. Thank you for commenting and would write a comment that basically says the same as yours, so I won’t, The open hostility to women in Wyoming is frustrating, disappointing, and embarrassing.

  5. I appreciated this column. I’m an “elderly” lady and I’m appalled at how we as women have let this kind of stuff slide, because we felt like we had to. I think the times are changing, thanks to outspoken women.

    1. Amen, Sistah. Women have been letting this kind of stuff slide for like what – 100,000 years? Time to pick up the pace. As food for thought, allow me to suggest the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes.

  6. Sen. Anderson simply could have kept quiet until he welcomed Ms. Wilmetti and said, “Please proceed when you are ready.” Too many times men feel the compulsion to command the attention of everyone in the room with their puerile and impolite musings. They assume their brand of wit will charm and put everyone at ease, getting nods and chuckles from their brethren. How refreshing it would be for us if they would sanely and quietly go about the business at hand.

  7. Watching that committee meeting online, I remember feeling confused by Anderson saying, “Let’s try to get this done before he gets back.” I’m no longer confused.

    One important distinction I would like to make is that our “inherent power” as “a free people” is granted by our nation’s Constitution. The opinion that it comes from “above” is a spiritual belief. The Constitution also grants each of us the right to hold any – or no – spiritual belief and be equal under the law.

    Thank you, Jen Simon and Cassie Craven, for partnering on this incisive essay.

  8. The truly frightening thing about this is The simple fact that her report was something to rush through. If the tables were turned and men were disproportionately impacted way women are this issue would be as important as the failed land purchase or the fruitless work of the revenue committee. All of those topics are front and center in this state, but the legislature lacks the political courage to take care of this state. Here is something that the legislature does have the power to fix, and they stuff it aside because it’s not about them. Wake up boys, or step aside!!!!

  9. Sadly, this situation is all too common in Wyoming. It won’t stop until both women AND men speak out and call the behavior for what it is – inappropriate and juvenile.

    If the men of Wyoming grow a (backbone) and show other males through mature, respectful behavior, how a real man acts towards the complimentary sex, incidents such as this could go the way of the Dodo bird.

    Sure, if you want to be a jerk at home, knock yourself out. This situation, however, occurred in an open meeting, in a public, taxpayer financed building, not on someone’s back deck. A higher level of personal interactions is required for those elected to represent their constituents. Basically, if you can’t run with the big dogs, stay home on the porch.

    How about it Wyoming men? Ready to Cowboy Up?

  10. It’s not just under representation of women! It’s about men who believe they can treat any woman this way! It’s sad, one would think we had progressed past the ‘good old boy’ posse and become mature adults. It seems we have a long way to go. Sexism, like racism, is a taught behavior…..

  11. Thanks for this, Jen & Cassie — I hope it is read, shared, and discussed across the state. I lobbied my 13th legislative session this year, and all of us women who have been in the halls of the Capitol (or the Jonah Building) have similar stories and anecdotes from public and private interactions over the years. Many comments and interactions color your experience as a woman in Wyoming politics. We can all do better and be better to each other. Thanks again for speaking out and giving us something to think about.