Many Women Say Family Responsibilities Keep Them From Public Office

Aug 17, 2012

Wyoming’s primary elections are Tuesday, and there are more than three times as many male candidates on the ballot for the state legislature as females. That’s because many women find that serving in office, while also holding down a job and raising a family, is just too difficult. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden reports.

WILLOW BELDEN: Kennedy Penn-O’Toole of Laramie is the youngest woman on the ballot for state legislature this year. She’s 31, and she’s able to run for office because she’s allowed to leave her job for part of the year – and her husband’s salary is high enough to support both of them while she’s on leave.

KENNEDY PENN-O’TOOLE: But also, we don’t have kids. So there’s an obstacle that I don’t face, that a lot of women do.

BELDEN: Yes, kids. They’re one of the big reasons so few women run for office in Wyoming. Marguerite Herman is a former lobbyist for the League of Women Voters in Wyoming. She points out that the legislature requires a lot of time away from home. Lawmakers spend about two months in Cheyenne each year, plus they have to make frequent trips around the state for committee meetings.

HERMAN: So if you have young children at home – and let’s face it, childcare falls 90-percent of the time to the women – that becomes very difficult if they don’t have, say, someone else in the household to take over for them.

BELDEN: That’s exactly what former representative Lisa Shepperson found. She’s a Republican from Midwest, and she resigned from the legislature when her daughter, Lavoye, was born.

LISA SHEPPERSON: I just knew – the moment I saw her, I’m like, ‘I can’t leave her for a month or more to be down at Cheyenne.’

BELDEN: Shepperson says she loved serving in the legislature, but she didn’t think she could handle all the travel with a new baby. She has no babysitter at home on her ranch, and the legislature doesn’t offer childcare to lawmakers.

SHEPPERSON: Being down there at Cheyenne, if I would have taken her, I would have had to go interview daycare centers down there, and try to find one that I liked – try to find one that there was space at. And doing all of that on my own would be extremely time consuming.

BELDEN: There are other obstacles to serving in the legislature, as well. For example, women are less likely than men to own their own businesses, so it’s harder to take time off work.

As a result, many more men than women serve in the legislature. And the women who do serve tend to be older – often retirement age.

Some see that as a problem. Again, Kennedy Penn-O’Toole.

O’TOOLE: I think in any good legislature and any good democracy, you need to have a diversity of interests being represented. And I don’t think that that’s the case.

BELDEN: So what exactly is missing? Dan Neal of the Equality State Policy Center says the legislature needs members with a wider array of backgrounds.

DAN NEAL: The perspective of women – and there are a lot of women in our state that are single and have children – that perspective just isn’t represented.

BELDEN: Representative Mary Throne, who’s a Democrat from Cheyenne, agrees. She says having more women in the legislature would enrich the debate on specific issues, like Domestic Violence and other things.

MARY THRONE: One of our big issues is women’s health care. Women are a little more knowledgeable on that than men are.

BELDEN: Republican Lisa Shepperson takes it a step farther.

SHEPPERSON: Abortion issues – you know, requiring ultrasounds before abortions – things like that, that directly affect women. I don’t think that men … should make those decisions for a woman.

BELDEN: All three point out that women don’t vote as a block. Still, they feel the legislature might make different decisions if more women were involved in the debate – particularly more women with different backgrounds. For example, if there were waitresses in the legislature, they say, there might be a different kind of discussion surrounding minimum wage for servers.

Dan Neal says there are some easy things the legislature could do to attract more women.

NEAL: Maybe the legislature could make a very clear relationship with the school district in Cheyenne so that they could accommodate somebody who came down with school-aged children. We’d like to see some sort of childcare facility there. … These are things that we could offer women so that they could participate.

BELDEN: Some advocacy groups, like the Wyoming Women’s Foundation, are taking another approach. They run annual leadership workshops for women, which provide tips on how to campaign, and how to balance leadership and family responsibilities.

Representative Mary Throne says women can do it all and that sacrificing some family time is actually worth it.

THRONE: I think it’s important that my children see women in leadership roles. I think it’s important that they value public service, and that they get a different perspective on government than they might get from mass media, or TV.

BELDEN: Throne has three kids, works fulltime as an attorney, and serves on the legislature. Then again, she lives in Cheyenne.

Most agree that for women in the rest of the state, serving in the legislature and raising a family will continue to be tough, until societal norms change and more men become primary caregivers. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.