Women’s Structural Exclusion from American Politics: The Case of Utah

As Barbara Burrell stated in her book A Woman’s Place Is in the House: Campaigning for Congress in the Feminist Era, “women were first socialized and then stereotyped into gender roles, particularly that there place is in the home, [which] offered few opportunities to exert political influence” (1997, 8). To prove her point, Burrell points out that it took fifty years of campaigning to gain women’s suffrage and then nearly another fifty years for women to vote in equal percentages as men (1997, 4). Research has come to show, especially in advocating policy, the contribution of a woman is quite different than that of a man. Hence, the absence of women from the political arena isn’t just a matter of bias – it leads to different outcomes than would be achieved if gender were balanced. The feminist approach is quick to note, then, that such a condition is not a model, representative government, since there is a significant portion of the population (women) that is entirely underrepresented.
Yet, another portion of the feminist argument for women’s representation in politics is that women are structurally excluded. Burrell remarks that if half the population sees their exclusion as “not random or irrelevant, but rather the consequence of discrimination and larger societal processes,” then the overall structure is undermined (1997, 6). The structural limitation of access to politics is an important part of the puzzle. For example, when women are shut out of politics because they lack the skills, resume, or capital to compete with male candidates because of their gender, they are hurt by the system. The either/or dilemma that arises from having to choose between raising children and pursuing a career, especially in politics, is a structural limitation.

As I have been pondering the idea of structural exclusion, I have been trying to piece together how this fits in to the fact that the Democratic Party has so much more female support, voters, and candidates than the Republican Party. While this trend has long been accepted on the national scale, I find it curious that it holds true in Utah politics where the vast majority of the population is Republican. Not only is Utah known for being Republican, it is also known for having Republican leanings because of religious beliefs. Yet even with this foundation, the Democratic Party still has considerably more female presence in Utah. For example, currently in the Utah State Congress there are 17 females – 12 Democrats and 5 Republicans. On a more local scale, in the last Republican State Convention (2010), 75% of the delegates were male and only 25% were female.

While there are a number of cultural, historical, and religious reasons why this could be- I’d like to suggest that it has to do with the idea of accepting or rejecting the idea of structural exclusion. The Democratic Party has made it part of their platform to advocate for more diversity and acceptance, as well as greater political involvement in evening out the structural barriers. But on the other hand, I would be interested in analyzing the attitudes of Utah Republicans regarding structural inclusion/exclusion. In an article written by Quin Monson and Scott Riding from the Center for the Study of Election and Democracy at BYU, they noted that while “female representativeness in political institutions was still proportionately low…some political scientists ascribed the failure to socialization factors instead of glass ceilings.” Apparently the way a woman is socialized to view herself is, for some, separate from any institutional limitations that manifest themselves in terms of glass ceilings!

This poblematic interpretation, if widely accepted among the Republican Party – whether consciously or not – would be a plausible theory as to why women have a more difficult time entering their political ranks. If the structure remains flawed, but those flaws are overlooked by attributing women’s lower participation to childhood socialization for which political parties bear no responsibility, then the Party can feel it is off the hook. There is little a woman can do but play into the either/or dilemma and conform to the system, which contradicts the conservative nature of the traditional Utah Republican in the first place. However, besides the rhetoric, I do not know what the Democratic Party has done to change the structure in a way that would benefit female candidates. If they didn’t do much, then maybe my point is off-base. Regardless, I do believe for the Republican Party in Utah to gain more female participants, something structurally will need to be done. Is it possible that a woman’s place could be in the House and in the home?

—by RFZ

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3 thoughts on “Women’s Structural Exclusion from American Politics: The Case of Utah

  1. GoodReason says:

    This is very interesting . . . the difference in percentages between the two parties in Utah is so very striking. Now, what did you mean by this sentence–“There is little a woman can do but play into the either/or dilemma and conform to the system, which contradicts the conservative nature of the traditional Utah Republican in the first place.” I am not sure I follow–what is it that is contradicting the conservative nature of the Republicans in Utah?

  2. Guest says:

    this is a really interesting article and i like that it focuses on the state of utah, but i wonder what it is like in other similarly religious states (like down south in the bible-belt). i wonder if they have similar patterns.

  3. GoodReason says:

    I did a little googling–there are 24 Democrats in the Utah State Legislature. If there are 12 women, that means 50% of Democratic legislators in Utah are women. There are 80 Republicans in the Utah State Legislature. If there are 5 women, that means 6% of Republican legislators are women. ACK.

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