While most high schoolers joined a sports team or did theater, I spent every day I could at the Utah state Capitol. PTA, debate club, political campaigns: I was obsessed with being in the Capitol’s halls — the wood floors and tall ceilings echoing the conversations that lead to real change being made for the state, and for people like me.
Meeting female legislators and lobbyists was a catalyst for me staying involved in politics long after high school graduation. The networking conversations I had standing in hallways between sessions reminded me that I had the opportunity to create change in my state, and I had better not waste it.
A conservative estimate yields that Utah women are on the bottom third of political equality in almost every measure.
Utah ranks 50th in the nation for women’s equality and 42nd for women’s political empowerment. Women comprise only 26% of the State Legislature, and, in 2023, only four women in the Legislature are women of color. At the county level, 15.3% of the commission and council seats are held by women. In individual cities, 29.8% of council members are women.
How can we rebalance the gender participation gap in politics?
Easy. We can start by engaging young women in the state legislative session.
Building relationships with legislators can make any citizen feel heard on issues they care about. For young people, that impact is twofold: they feel seen and gain a mentor. This is critical to support and connect young people as they get into politics. Research focused on youth political participation found that the earlier you start to develop civic skills, like volunteerism and critical thinking, the more likely you are to stay politically engaged throughout your life. In a state with an approximately 69% voter registration rate, it is essential that we hold on to that turnout momentum.
It is important to note that encouraging women to participate in politics does not just mean running for office. Creating legislation that is truly helpful requires real people to share their experiences with social issues.
The essential component in increasing women’s political participation is empowering women to make their lived experiences heard — whether they are running for office or running errands.
CIRCLE, a research institute dedicated to studying youth political participation, “estimated voter turnout among young women (nationwide) was 55%, compared to 44% among young men.” Their research found that young Asian and Latina women in particular were more likely to engage in activism activities, like attending a protest or volunteering.
During the 2018 election cycle, CIRCLE’s research showed that 65% of youth in Utah discussed politics with friends and family, and 46.2% volunteered in their community. Only 6% contacted an elected official to express their opinion. This research is supported by the fact that parents in Utah rated our civic education as “below average” in a 2021 survey from the Sutherland Institute.
Our young people are talking about politics, and many of them are volunteering, but why are they not directly involved in the lawmaking process?
I believe that young people, especially young women, aren’t given enough of a chance to approach the lawmaking arena. Ninety-one percent of Utahns keep up with the news, but how many of us express our opinions (respectfully and logically) to the people who can make a difference?
Retweeting an article about the crisis of the Great Salt Lake might let your followers know you want change, but sending your representative a short email (even during the offseason!) can impact legislation passing or failing.
How many young women have the opportunity to meet, build a relationship with, and then lobby their state representatives?
Girls Lobby is a nonprofit organization seeking to bridge the participation gap. They host weekly virtual lessons with college-aged mentors and high school girls to practice skills for legislative involvement. Participants learn how to write op-eds, give testimony (virtually and in person), and share their personal experiences with social issues. The instruction is nonpartisan and focused on building a community of women who can apply their skills in the state legislature, city council and even at school board meetings.
As a senior in high school, I was able to participate in the Girls Lobby program and get a personal look at Utah politics. During the opening event, we heard from Rep. Candice Perrucci, R-Herriman. She told a story of a young girl who visited her at the Capitol. As the young girl walked away, she pointed at Rep. Perrucci and told her mom, “she looks like me!”
Seeing someone like myself in elected office empowers me to close that political participation gap — no matter my age.
Sydney Ward is a senior in the public relations program at Brigham Young University.