My big idea for 2016 as a reporter was to follow a woman running for office for the first time in Utah: to be there when she filed for candidacy, to follow along as she crossed manicured lawns to knock on suburban household doors asking for support, to sit in the war room with her volunteer campaign manager while they talked strategy, to look up and see her white knuckles on the podium as she gave her first public speech. I pictured election night in her living room or a high school gym, balloons fixed to the ceiling. I wanted to be there whether she won or lost. In fact, I knew she would probably lose.
In 2013, when I started reporting on women in Utah politics, the Beehive State ranked 46th in the nation for the percentage of its state legislators who were female. Every year since, Utah has been at or near the bottom of this list and was for years before, too. Utah has one female in its congressional delegation; Mia Love is only the fourth woman in Utah's history to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. The state has never elected a female senator. Currently, not a single woman holds a seat in the state executive office. Utah has had one female attorney general and one female governor. Only 9 percent of Utah's mayors are women.
A lot of people aren't surprised when I tell them about Utah's serious gender disparity in politics. "Duh. Mormons," they say. Meaning, I guess, that something about the LDS culture keeps women away from the political arena. There's some truth to this, but it's not an explanation. Meanwhile, our neighbors to the north in Wyoming (the "Equality State") rank dead last for women in their state legislature, and they have a lot less LDS influence.
If anything, our geography and history would have more women leading in the state. We were pioneers in every sense of the word. Suffrage came first to Wyoming and then to Utah before either territory was a state. Women's suffrage was written into Utah's state constitution, and, well before the 19th Amendment was ratified, Martha Hughes Cannon became the first female state senator in the nation in 1896, beating out her own husband and a fellow female suffragist among others on the ballot.
Check Every Box
The easiest explanation for why there are so few female elected officials in Utah is this: Women need to be asked to run for office and not enough people are asking them.
"Women don't tend to be self-starters as far as political candidacy goes," says Katie Ziegler, who tracks this issue for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "It takes recruiting a woman, asking her: 'You should do it; you should put your hat in the ring.'"
Tell a man he should run for office and he will. Tell a woman she should run for office and she'll tell you she's not qualified as surely as when you ask someone how they're doing, they'll answer "fine." This is called the confidence gap.
In the corporate world, people often cite a Hewlett-Packard study conducted when the company couldn't figure out why there weren't many women in their upper-management positions. What they found was that women only applied for promotions if they were 100 percent qualified for the job—as in, they read the full job posting and could check every single box for every single requirement. Men looking at the same job posting would apply on average if they met 60 percent of the qualifications. The reason there weren't many women with corner offices at HP had nothing to do with qualifications and everything to do with self-esteem.
Real Women Run is a Salt Lake City-based organization that knows this. They know that women need to be asked to run for office and to be told that they are qualified, so they hold workshops four times a year and invite women to come so that speaker after speaker gets up in front of this intrigued group of women and says, "You should run for office. You are totally qualified to run for office. You're a mom? You're a cashier? You're involved in Relief Society? You volunteer at a homeless shelter? You tutor your neighbor's kid in math? You should run for office. You are totally qualified to run for office."
Signed, Sealed, Delivered
Xani Haynie was totally qualified to run for office. She showed up at a Real Women Run training at the start of 2016 because the House representative in her district, Brian Greene, was going to run unopposed to keep his seat. Haynie was the first person to call me when I reached out to Real Women Run for a name of someone I could journalistically stalk all year.
"You know who he is, right?" she asked me. I had to admit the name sounded familiar but she had to remind me about that time during the 2015 legislative session that he wondered—out loud, on the record, in a committee meeting—if having sex with your wife while she was sleeping would really be considered rape. That guy. She didn't want that guy to run unopposed to represent her district.
A flat tire and unexpected Saturday morning traffic on the way to Provo made me miss Haynie's speech at the Utah County GOP convention in April. My vision of following a candidate every step of the way, like a police ridealong, was already losing out to the realities of being a freelance reporter. I had missed her first public appearance and the voting. In fact, I barely caught her on her way out of the convention. She was furiously texting on her phone.
"I bet your phone is lighting up today," I said.
"Oh, it's my mom," she said. "I drug her here and she just had hip surgery and she's asking if we can go home soon."
So, I made it quick and asked her how the voting went. She landed at 33 percent approval, she told me. She needed 40 percent to move on to a primary from the convention, but luckily she took advantage of a brand new law that allowed her to gather signatures instead to get on the primary ballot. She gathered the necessary 1,000 signatures in February to assure she would be on her district's ballot in June as a first-time candidate running against an incumbent.
"When women run, women win." This is a kind of motto with groups like Real Women Run. It's not that women aren't electable; they tend to win elections at the same rate as men, but they don't enter the game in nearly the same numbers as men. "The research has shown that there's not bias at the ballot box," Ziegler said. "You have to take a step back and realize that when you look at the numbers, women aren't running for state legislative offices in the numbers that would increase the women elected. Put more simply," she continues, "women aren't running, so they're not getting elected. When women run, women win."
In June, a few days before Utah's primary election, Haynie's race got ugly. A mailer went out to Greene's Republican constituents reminding voters about his 2015 spousal rape comments. The message came from Alliance for a Better Utah; Haynie didn't know anything about it. Alliance for a Better Utah told The Salt Lake Tribune that they hadn't spoken to her about the flier and Haynie commented that she wasn't familiar with the organization, saying, "I'm not sure why they came into my race uninvited."
No one knows how damaging that flier was to Haynie's campaign, but she lost in the primary by fewer than 200 votes.
When women run, women win ... except when they don't.
I wasn't there when Haynie lost her primary race to Greene. I was at home on my futon with my laptop watching the Utah elections results page refresh itself every 60 seconds, whiling away 59 seconds in between on Twitter. Haynie wasn't "my candidate." She doesn't live in my county. She doesn't belong to my political party. I don't even know anyone who lives in her district, who might have voted for her. But I was bummed when she lost. She did everything right and she didn't win. She went door-to-door in February and got 1,800 people to sign her petition. She went to all the trainings. She reacted calmly in the face of smear campaign. She never used Brian Greene's rape comments against him; she said them to me off-the-record and never made that part of her campaign. But you don't get to win because you're a woman. You just get to run. And you get to lose, just like anyone else.
Watching the Scoreboard
Two things happened in June that lifted my spirits and revived my year-long reporting journey. Misty Snow, the first transgender candidate for U.S. Senate, won the Democratic nomination in her primary. So did Hillary Clinton.
I spent election night with a friend from college and her four daughters. The oldest, Hannah, is a freshman in college. She turned 18 on Oct. 30, a week before the election.
I asked her whom she voted for, if it wasn't a secret. She told me that she voted for Clinton and that it wasn't a secret, but she was a bit scared talking to people at her Christian school earlier that day about whom she voted for. Hannah is shy—"reserved," in her own word. She said she likes to avoid conflict, and that talking about the election during the weeks leading up to it was fraught with conflict.
I asked if it was a big deal for her that there was a female presidential candidate on the ballot. She reminded me that there was more than one woman in the top race (sorry, Jill Stein), then she told me about her thoughts from earlier in the year, when she was still in high school learning about the primaries in her AP government class. "I was thinking it would be really cool if Hillary ended up becoming the major party candidate," she said. "To me, it didn't seem that unlikely. I was thinking to myself that it was really great that it was in this election—the first one for me—that this could happen."
And then it did.
Hannah is bright, informed and much more prepared for her first election than I was for mine. As the race tightened on election night, I asked her what she thought was going to happen.
"I was pretty certain that if Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump went against each other, there would be no question that Clinton would win," she said. "But now it's so close. ... I hope she wins, but ... I don't know."
"And what if she doesn't?" I asked.
"I'll be disappointed," she said. "I don't think the country will burst into flames, but there are certain things about my own perception of the country and how it's being represented diplomatically that would be disappointing because I think Hillary would represent us better."
Hannah's youngest sister, Allison, had also voted for Clinton in her fourth grade classroom mock vote earlier that day. She said she wasn't worried about the election because Trump only got two votes in her class and she didn't think he was popular enough to be president.
Before Pennsylvania or Florida had been called, it was time for bed for the younger girls. Allison protested, whining, "I don't want to stay at school until 5 tomorrow." When her mom asked what that was about she said, "Someone at school told me that if Donald Trump is president, school will be longer and we'll have to stay until 5 every day." This same source also told her that everything at Trader Joe's would cost more in a Trump administration.
Hannah, who was at a physics lab until 8 p.m. and had an early morning class to get to, opted to walk away from the election results and go to bed, too.
"Don't you want to know what happens?" her mom asked.
"I do," Hannah said. "Tomorrow."
Then it was just the grown-ups sitting in front of the TV, four beers in. It didn't feel much like a history lesson anymore. It started to feel like a trainwreck. I didn't want to be there in the morning when my friend had to tell her girls that Clinton lost the election.
Watching an election is like watching the scoreboard when you can't see the game. It's just numbers. It's just a score. The game itself was over a long time ago, it seemed. I felt like Hannah. I didn't want to stay up. My phone was dead anyway: Twittered out.
Before I went to bed, I plugged in my also dead laptop to check in on the Utah results.
Misty Snow lost her race, but she got 27 percent of the vote, which is a good showing for any Democrat in Utah.
Mia Love was re-elected in the closest of Utah's four congressional races.
The two incumbent female state senators who ran kept their seats. Both offices (one Democrat and one Republican) were challenged by men.
Five new women were elected to Utah's House of Representatives. One candidate lost by three—yes, three—votes. There were 15 additional House races that had women contenders. If every woman who ran for a spot in the Utah Legislature won her race, women would make up a third of the senate and almost 40 percent of the House.
And so, in 2017 Utah will be out of the bottom 10 states for women in the state Legislature. (We're 38!) Wyoming, on the other hand, lost women in their Legislature, making the Equality State somehow even worse than last place.
Chance and Opportunity
Hannah was right—the country didn't burst into flames when Trump won the presidential election. Her sister Allison went to school the next day and was released in the early afternoon like she always had. Trader Joe's still has double cream brie with truffles for $7.99.
I woke up early but stayed in bed late the next day. I did manage to roll over, grab my laptop and stream Clinton's concession speech: "Our campaign was never about one person, or even one election," she said. "It was about the country we love and building an America that is hopeful, inclusive and big-hearted."
That made me feel better about drowning my sorrows in local races.
In some ways, for as close as we were to having a female commander in chief, we seem inversely far away from it now. As a journalist, I'm uncomfortable being in the chorus of Americans moaning, "It's not fair." I feel like saying what my mom used to bark at me all the time: "You know what? Life's not fair." But it seems pretty wrong to say, "You know what? Democracy's not fair."
It's not fair that Clinton didn't win in the same way that it's not fair that Misty Snow and Xani Haynie didn't win. They did what they were expected to do. They had the confidence to run. They knew they could lose, and they did it anyway.
"To all of the little girls who are watching this," Clinton said after admitting that the loss was painful, "never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams."
I thought about trying to explain this to my friend's daughters—that girls deserve the "chance and opportunity" to pursue their dreams, but they don't deserve to have their dreams handed to them. It would have been a lot easier to explain—especially to a kid like Allison—if Clinton had just won the election.
When women run, women win.
But sometimes they just don't.