By Jasmine Hall
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE – Wyoming continues to make advances in female political representation, adding four more women to the Legislature this election cycle.
Twenty out of 93 legislators who will serve constituents in the upcoming general session will be women, including eight women who were elected to their first term.
Yet, as many celebrated the incoming additions to the state’s legislative governing body, there was also recognition of the barriers many women face when deciding to run for office.
“It’s wonderful to see women more present in governance. As a working mother of young children, however, I feel the difficulty of balancing the needs of my family with those of constituents,” said Sarah Penn, representative-elect for House District 33. “I believe this is a major reason why women are less present. We have a very important job of raising up tomorrow’s future. That should never be discounted as being less important.”
Penn helped lift the number of women in the House and Senate from 16 to 20 in 2023. This is a significant number of women to hold positions in the Wyoming Legislature at one time, as there were only a total of 137 of women to ever be elected to the Legislature before 2021.
Albany County Democrat Mary Bellamy was the first woman ever elected in 1910, serving in the state House of Representatives, and Republican Dora McGrath was the first woman elected to the Senate to represent Hot Springs County in 1930.
“We have had some great female politicians in the past and have continued it through today,” said Stacy Jones, who is a Republican elected in House District 13. “It isn’t easy to run for a political office, and Wyoming female politicians are an inspiration to me.”
Even fewer women have served in leadership roles.
Sen. April Brimmer Kunz, R-Cheyenne, was the first woman to become Senate president in 2003, and Reps. Edness Kimball Wilkins and Verda James served as speaker of the House in the 1960s.
Most recently, Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, was the House minority leader, and Sen. Liisa Anselmi-Dalton, D-Rock Springs, held the Senate minority whip position.
The state falls behind in the percentage of women in legislative seats compared to other states.
According to the Center for American Women and Politics, Wyoming is among the 10 states in the nation with the lowest percentage of female legislators, despite the fact that it will be 21.5% this year.
Nevada, Colorado, Oregon and Rhode Island lead with nearly half of their legislators being women.
“It’s critical that women have the same amount of representation as they do in the populace,” said Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, who was elected in 2021. “If we have 51% of women in the state of Wyoming, then we should have 51% of representation being women.”
Martha Lawley was elected recently as a representative for House District 27.
She said while she knows there have been more women in recent history to serve in the Legislature, as well as notable advances in state offices, the Equality State has moved slowly in gaining female participation. She said she recognizes there has been an impact due to the role that women play within society and the family structure.
Lawley said it is difficult for them to step away for two-plus months every year to be in Cheyenne. The main factor is leaving children and heading to a capitol without access to child care and without high enough compensation to pay for services.
“I want women in this state to see that their voice and their stand is needed,” said Abby Angelos, representative-elect for House District 3. “They can be involved in the direction and future of this state, they can raise a family, have a career, own businesses, but I will not candy-coat it: it is a sacrifice, one that I am happy to make for the future of our state and our children.”
Besides often being the primary caretaker for children, some legislators currently serving said they’ve faced scrutiny or experiences they don’t believe are had by their male colleagues.
“I am very fortunate in that I have a supportive spouse and children who understand the demands of the Legislature,” said Sen. Affie Ellis, RCheyenne. “What I experienced differently are some odd remarks that people made.”
She said when she was first elected, people would ask her frequently who was watching her children, or if her husband was a good babysitter. Ellis said she didn’t believe male legislators in her same age group were being asked similar questions.
Provenza said she doesn’t often feel sexism among her colleagues, but she does feel female legislators face the brunt of vitriol, and the manner in which those negative comments are expressed often differs from the way they are expressed to men.
She pointed to the email that was sent to Sen. Tara Nethercott, RCheyenne, by Park County Republican Party official Troy Bray last September.
“If I were as despicable a person as you, I would kill myself to rid the world of myself. You sicken me,” Bray wrote in the email to Nethercott. “You sicken me. Thank you for ensuring that the people of Wyoming are subjected to tyranny once again. F– YOU C–.”
The Laramie representative said she doesn’t want to say women are targeted, but they receive comments such as those more often.
“The point of it is to, I don’t know, show some sort of power and make you feel small,” Provenza told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “While I know some of my male colleagues are harassed, I don’t know that any of them have ever been threatened with sexual assault. It’s just difficult.”
Handling challenges such as harassment or lack of child care are factors that have to be taken into account when deciding to run for office as a woman, but it’s easier when there is a network of support.
Ellis is co-chair of the bipartisan Wyoming Women’s Legislative Caucus, and she has helped cultivate that system in the Legislature.
The organization addresses gender issues in campaigns and politics through a variety of priorities, including gatherings, candidate development, and an intern and aide program. At the conference hosted by the caucus, Ellis said experts revealed research that shows women often need to be asked to run for office, whereas men are likely to believe they are qualified for an open seat and run without hesitation.
“When I see dynamic female leaders in my community, I definitely tell them to run for city council, county commission, the school board,” she said.
Rep. Sandy Newsome, R-Cody, also wants to see more women in politics. She said they should be in positions of power where they set the agenda.
“Currently, the chairmen and vice chairmen of the Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee are all women. This is rare, and I would like to see more women in leadership roles,” she said in a statement. “We talk about what women add to the conversation; these women in leadership get to determine the topics that are addressed.”
While there was nearly complete unity on the question of having more women in politics, there were a variety of perspectives on whether women bring a different voice to the Legislature.
Ellis said women don’t vote as a block, and the issues that they work on and viewpoints they have are just as diverse as their communities.
Ideas are most important to Ward, not whether someone is male or female. She reiterated that she wants to see the number of legislators who believe in life and liberty grow.
Newly elected Republican state Sen. Evie Brennan, who will serve District 31, said she is not concerned with how many men or women there are in the Legislature, but rather, those in public service who are there to protect the Constitution and preserve the state.
However, she said they do bring a different perspective. She said women tend to be more compassionate and nurturing, and are more in touch with what the next generation needs.
“I ran for the Wyoming state senate because I believe there is a need for the everyday mom to get involved in legislation,” Brennan said. “As a mom with young children, I want to ensure that there is a voice that speaks up for the next generation. I am excited to be that voice.”