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.”
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.