Recruiting Is Key To Boosting Number Of Women In Elected Office

Dec 9, 2016

The 2015 Wyoming Women’s Caucus.
Credit Wyoming Women’s Caucus

  


For the last 22 years, women have held Wyoming's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Retiring Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) is being replaced by Liz Cheney. Lummis herself replaced Barbara Cubin, who was elected to the seat in 1994. Cubin was the first woman to ever hold the seat, breaking down barriers that had been in place for generations. 

“When I then ran subsequently, Wyoming was accustomed to having a woman in that position," said Lummis. "So, I didn’t need to break that ground. I simply had to prove myself as worthy of the position.”

Cheney will continue the now decades-old tradition.

The situation in the state legislature, however, is very different. Wyoming places last in the nation when it comes to the percentage of women in its legislature, and that number is dropping. This year it was 13 percent. Come January, it will drop to just 11 percent. 

“Half of Wyoming is women," Lummis said. "Something is missing.”

Why are the numbers so low? A few frequently-cited reasons are that women tend to be caregivers and Wyoming has a citizen legislature, which requires lots of time and resources. Women also tend to have smaller fundraising networks. 

One of the biggest problems in getting women into office, though, is just recruiting them in the first place. Wyoming Democrats made that a focus this year.

“I absolutely specifically look for women to run for office,” said Aimee Van Cleave, the executive director of Wyoming’s Democratic Party.

She noted 27 of the 37 women who ran this year were Democrats, and said finding women to run for office is critical.

“Our current senator [Mike] Enzi is fond of saying ‘If you’re not at the table you’re on the menu,’ and I absolutely believe that’s true for the women of Wyoming,” Van Cleave said.

Despite those efforts, just 10 women were elected to the legislature this year, and only four of those were Democrats.

Although Republican women outnumber the Democratic women, that party says it does not actively recruit for women. Tammy Hooper, the state committeewoman for the Albany County Republicans, said she doesn't do a lot of recruiting in general, but that when she does, she does not consider gender.

“You know, what I look for is in a candidate is who is going to be the best candidate regardless of their gender,” said Hooper.

Of the three women elected to the Wyoming Senate this year, two are Republicans. State GOP Chair Matt Micheli said he did encourage one of them – Affie Ellis – to think about running.

“It’s not that she’s a woman or that she’s a man or anything, it’s just somebody that I think is going to be a talented and great senator,” said Micheli.

To the state's top elected Republican woman, reaching out to talented women more is something she wishes happened more often.

“I think that political parties need to reach out to women, especially when they see a woman who’s very involved in her community, very smart, able to articulate issues, care about the people they would be representing, and help them,” Lummis said.

Republican Ruth Ann Petroff, a current legislator who will be stepping down after serving in the Wyoming House for five years, agreed there should be more women in the legislature.

“I’ve struggled with that in the past, ‘Is it really important?’ And I guess I would just go to say if everyone were over 65 years of age or everyone were under 35 years of age - we all have such different perspectives on life that a diverse group of people is essential to making good decisions for our future.”

And the research shows women do need to be recruited.

“Looking at men and women with equal professional backgrounds, equal qualifications; women need to be asked to run, and then they also don’t see themselves as qualified to take on a political campaign," said Katie Ziegler, who works for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But men do, and so at least this year, Wyoming's big decisions will lie in the hands of an overwhelmingly male legislature. 

This story is part of the series Women Run The West – a public radio collaboration exploring the role of women in western politics. You can hear more stories at www.womenrunthewest.org.