Cowgirl up: Time for a broader perspective in Wyoming politics

Affie Ellis, Wyoming State Senator

One of the most cringeworthy moments at last year’s legislative session was when the five older, white gentlemen on the Senate Agriculture Committee — a group some may describe as a patriarchy — met to decide the fate of two bills to restrict women’s reproductive rights. The panel advanced both bills 4–1.

Two women who testified against the anti-abortion measures were chastised by the committee’s chairman, Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs). One dared to mention that neither bill included a provision for rape victims. “We’re not here to debate what is or isn’t in the statutes,” Hicks snapped.

Actually, that is one of the committee’s jobs. The second woman objected to a bill that called a fetus an “unborn child,” the term anti-abortionists prefer to the legal, scientific word. Hicks asked her, “Do you think we should abolish all the laws that we have in this country that when someone commits homicide against a pregnant woman it’s no longer a violation to also kill whatever terminology you want to apply to it?”

As I watched this drama unfold I had two thoughts. First, why on earth was the agriculture committee voting on two abortion-related bills?

Then I imagined what might happen to this and other proposed bills if more women, no matter their political leanings or views on abortion, were in the Wyoming Legislature.

Now I have another question: Can marching in protest of gender disparities in the so-called “Equality State” actually change anything?

I believe it can, which is why my wife and I plan to attend the second annual Women’s March Wyoming in Cheyenne at 10 a.m. on Jan. 20. Casper will simultaneously host a second march and additional cities are considering their own events.

The first march was enjoyable and exciting, especially because it was held the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Remember all the crazy promises he made during his campaign that would hurt women, immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, veterans and their families, the LGBTQ community, seniors, children, the poor and many others? Remember him bragging, on tape, about sexually assaulting women? The overt threat of a Trump presidency to women’s rights engendered a certain energy to those first marches.

Trump has doubled down on those threats since entering the White House, and trampled cherished American values beyond recognition in the process. But this isn’t a treatise about the incompetence and malevolence of Trump’s presidency, despite how much fun that would be to write.

No, my goal here is to encourage people who may feel numb about and overwhelmed by current world events to become more active participants in the democratic process, starting with the Women’s March.

The theme of the march is “Hear Our Vote.” It’s essential for more women to engage in two fundamental political acts — vote and run for office. Both will enhance women’s voices from the halls of the Capitol (if its three-year renovation is ever finished) to the city council chambers and beyond. And all of us, men, women and children will benefit.

Voting is the easier of the two — a matter of knowing the rules, properly registering and getting to the right precinct. Deciding to run for office, though, is inherently more difficult for women than men.

Sara Burlingame, director of Wyoming Equality, an LGBTQ rights organization, said demographic statistics and other studies show that if you are a man, having young children probably won’t affect your decision to seek political office.

“But if you are a woman with young children it almost instantly disqualifies you,” she said.

Burlingame noted it’s easier for women who live in Cheyenne to balance their schedules and responsibilities to run for the Legislature, but women who live far from the capital city can’t simply leave their kids at home to spend months in Cheyenne and traveling the state.

Let’s be clear, increasing the number of women involved in civic leadership isn’t only important for “women’s issues.” It’s about tapping into (at least) half of the best minds in the state, and building a government that actually reflects the populace and all the perspectives therein.

Only 11 percent of Wyoming’s lawmakers, 10 of 90, are women.

That’s the lowest percentage in the country. The national average is a shade under 25 percent.

It will likely take a long time to change the Legislature’s gender balance, but it’s not impossible.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of opportunities for women to run for city councils, county commissions, school boards and other local offices where they can have a significant impact on people’s lives.

That experience is a good way to learn what it takes to represent voters and show the electorate that they are ready to seek higher offices when the time is right.

Samantha Case, a former WyoFile staffer who founded Wyoming Women Rise, a nonprofit focused on growing the number of women who run for office in the state, and recently joined the staff of CLIMB Wyoming, a program that helps low-income single mothers become self-sufficient through career training and placement, said she believes the 2017 march opened doors for some women to think about running for office and gave others a taste of what it would be like.

“I think this march will see women walking through that door, seizing the opportunity and really feeling comfortable with a decision to run,” she said. “It’s very important for women to feel they have the support they need and the tools they need.”

If more women become legislators, Case said, she thinks we’ll learn that women are generally better at working across the aisle, collaborating and reaching consensus. “I think the results would be pretty phenomenal,” she predicted. “I think we’d see more Democrats and Republicans collaborate and listen to one another.”

Case said she can easily see herself running for office “in the future, but in the distant future.”

“I see myself as more of an activist at this point,” she said. “I also like to think of myself as a bridge between people and opportunities. I’d like to help other people who might be in a better position now to run for office.”

Despite what the success of the Trump campaign may suggest, a key step in launching a candidacy is learning the issues. Based on my experience last year I believe whoever marches will leave with more knowledge about state and national issues and how the Legislature works.

Of course not every woman who participates in the Jan. 20 march will decide to throw her hat in the ring. But running is likely already on the minds of some Wyoming women. Even those who decide not to enter a race they can vote and support other women to choose to run. That’s a must if we are to swap the good ol’ boys club we’ve kept re-electing since statehood in 1890 for a Legislature that represents all of us.

Kerry Drake is a veteran Wyoming journalist, and a contributor to He also moderates the WyPols blog. He has more than 30 years experience at the Wyoming Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune as a reporter, editor and editorial writer. He lives in Casper.