Want More Women In The Legislature? Just Ask
By Caroline Ballard
Across the United States, women make up just under a quarter of state legislators. In Wyoming, the statistics are even worse – only 13 percent of legislators are women. That makes the “Equality State” 50th in the nation. Part of the problem is no one is asking them to run.
Bernadine Craft is a state senator from Sweetwater County, and she is the only woman in the state senate. She says that the main reason she is there is because she was asked to run by Senator Rae Lynn Job, who once held the senate seat Craft has now.
“At the time she was still in the senate and was looking for somebody to run for the House, and came and talked to me and talked to me. It took about three months to talk me into running,” says Craft.
After Job had talked Craft into running, she also went out of her way to help her file to run.
Craft says, “We couldn’t file online, so you had to come and file in person in Cheyenne. Rae Lynn drove my application so it would get here in time.”
That’s a four hour drive from Rock Springs.
According to a 2013 study done by American University, 40 percent of men are encouraged to run for office at some point in their life. Just 29 percent of women report the same, even though both sexes respond well to encouragement.
Craft says even though she is the only woman in the Senate, she doesn’t feel pressure to represent all Wyoming women in their political interests, but she does try to represent women in the way she conducts herself on the Senate floor. She says there are times when testimony or debate can get emotional, and she has even had to step into the bathroom to cry.
“But then you dry your eyes and you put more lipstick on, and you touch up your makeup, and you go back in. And you represent as passionately as you can without letting the emotionality of the issue get you, because that’s something you never want to do is have anyone say 'well isn’t that just like a woman,'” says Craft.
About twenty five years ago, Wyoming actually ranked 11th in the U.S. for its share of women in the legislature. Back then, Wyoming had multimember districts where multiple candidates from a party would run on a ticket depending on a county’s population. That meant more women could be included without having to run head to head against another opponent, something that can be especially daunting if that opponent is an incumbent. But in the nineties multimember districts were done away with by the courts in favor of single member districts, and term limits were struck down, too.
“Yes, it is possible to have term limits imposed. Yes, it’s possible to return to multimember districts. But the barriers, the obstacles that those changes would face are quite high,” says Dr. Jim King, a political science professor at the University of Wyoming. He says people should instead look to community members who serve on advisory boards or in local leadership roles, and get them thinking about running.
“It’s a fostering of opportunities rather than changing the system as a whole,” says King.
National organizations like She Should Run form networks that help women run, and some states like Utah are starting their own versions on a smaller scale. But in Wyoming, there is no organization that specifically encourages, supports, and mentors women who want to run for office throughout the filing process and campaigning.
Nimi McConigley served in the Wyoming House of Representatives in the 90s. She says a mentorship group is a great idea, and something she would like to be a part of.
“I’ve been out of legislative life for almost 20 years, but I’m very much engaged with the concerns in the community and the state,” says McConigley, who is South Asian.
The share of women and minorities in the legislature now is low, but she says being a mentor could show that running – and winning – is possible.
“If I could do it, coming from India, a woman who looks like me and identifies as I do - to be validated, to be affirmed, to be elected to the Wyoming State Legislature made it possible for any child who was different to aspire to do the same thing,” says McConigley.
For her part, Bernadine Craft says she would welcome more women in the Senate.
“I just think it’s a different tone and it’s a different voice and it needs to be heard. And I have never felt like my voice wasn’t heard but it’s one among 29 others,” she says.
This is an election year, though, and Craft’s voice could be joined by other women soon. Candidates can file to run for the legislature in May.