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Wyoming: First In Women's Suffrage, Last In Female Representation

Bob Beck
The 2020 Wyoming Legislature

In Wyoming history, only 119 women have won legislative races. Since about half of the state is made up of women, it means they seriously lack representation. It's an issue that has been discussed for years, though little gets done.

Before getting elected, freshman State Representative Shelly Duncan of Lingle noticed something in the few times she came to Cheyenne to lobby on some issues.

"My interaction, as limited as it was, was that the legislature was filled with old men, older men. And the demographics were those of ranchers and attorneys," said Duncan.

So one day she decided to run.

Duncan is a realtor and she thought it was critical to get a professional woman's voice into the debate. She's a Republican who thought about running for many years but couldn't afford it when her children were younger and then being away from work would have been an additional challenge. She suspects this impacts other women thinking about a legislative seat.

Then there's other considerations.

"Can your personality fit in with the dynamic of having to deal with a heavily male dominated, patriarchal, traditional scenario in the legislature?" Duncan added "It's a good old boys' situation, can you deal with that?"

Duncan can. And her election has added a voice on business and women's issues. She can remember several debates over the past couple of years where it became obvious that men knew little about some critical issues facing families like problems paying for childcare.

Chris Merrill is the Director of the Equality State Policy Center. He said the need for women to give their perspective is critical.

"You just need those voices in the room as part of the conversation, or else so many things are never said, never thought of, and the debates are less robust, the policy is less informed, so you want as much as possible to have the legislature represent the population," said Merrill.

House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly agreed. Connolly has lacked friends in the room when she's tried to tackle issues like childcare and wage disparities. While there is a need to get more women elected, Connolly said the women who are there need to be chosen to play more significant roles, especially in the Republican party.

"I am the minority leader of the House Democrats, but there are no women in top leadership and only two out of 20 who are chairs of committees. In the last legislative session, there were no women who were chairs of legislative committees," noted Connolly.

Just to show you how big a deal having a woman in leadership is, three have either served as Speakers of the House or Senate President and two have schools named after them. Connolly said if more women get into the legislature, it stands to reason that more women will play a more significant role. But getting them there is difficult. Marguerite Herman of the Wyoming League of Women voters said part of the problem is the increased workload.

"It used to be just the sessions, right, but now there's all this interim work and preparing for the interim work and then following up on it. Once again it makes it extremely hard for younger people and women," said Herman.

That's because many don't have the kinds of jobs that will let them take on a task like serving in the legislature. Representative Duncan said it's certainly a problem.

"The biggest thing I think that's more difficult for a woman than a man is proximity. You're going to find a lot more women being able to leave for two months if they are closer to the Capitol than if they are from across the state," said Duncan.

That theory tends to play out. In the last election five Republican women were elected to the Senate and three were from Cheyenne and another was from Torrington.

Connolly said she thinks one reform will help.

"We need to make the legislature more of an institution that acknowledges and accepts and recruits parents. Now that includes men as well. But we need to consider things such as childcare and the importance of being able to care for your children while serving in the legislature as well," added Connolly.

She tried a childcare friendly proposal this year that failed on the floor, when some male legislators suggested they needed help taking care of livestock. Despite that unfortunate discussion, she's optimistic that a proposal will eventually pass.

Then there's another idea.

"I think that having healthcare would make all the difference. "

Connolly proposes allowing legislators to get into the state health care system.

Duncan and Connolly note that there does seem to be a large number of women trying for legislative seats this year and they are hopeful that the overall numbers will finally improve.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Bob Beck, at btwo@uwyo.edu.



Bob Beck retired from Wyoming Public Media after serving as News Director of Wyoming Public Radio for 34 years. During his time as News Director WPR has won over 100 national, regional and state news awards.
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