123 years after electing America’s first state senator, Utah ranks last for women’s equality

ST. GEORGE — In 1896, Martha Hughes Cannon was elected as America’s first state senator – even defeating her own husband, who was also on the Utah ballot – marking a huge achievement for women equality.

On Monday, a statue of Cannon was revealed at the Utah Capitol, where it will remain temporarily before being transported to Washington D.C. for permanent display.

Some 123 years since this remarkable achievement, a recent study shows Utah ranking dead last for women’s equality – again.

The study assessed factors such as workplace environment, political empowerment, education and health while also pointing out that while women’s equality has made leaps and bounds, there is still a very real glass ceiling that women continue to struggle to breakthrough.

It was a study similar to this that inspired Dr. Florence Bacabac, English professor at Dixie State University, to write a proposal some eight years ago to create a resource center for women at the university that was backed by many university administrators.

Florence E. Bacabac, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Jyl Hall, DSU Public Relations Coordinator, St. George News

Now the director of the Women’s Resource Center there, she told St. George News in the last few years, Dixie State has seen an increase in female graduates, which hovered around 50% a few years ago.

“But still, a lot of work needs to be done with the whole state of Utah. We’re still the number one state with the lowest degreed women,” Bacabac said, adding that this is due to “an intersection of different factors.”

Utah is in need of more women leaders, and in order for there to be more female representation at those leadership levels, there needs to be more female graduates.

“We cannot afford female students not to graduate if we want change, which means more female college students staying in school and graduating,” Bacabac said.

In order to do this, the center focuses on providing academic and professional development through mentoring, workshops, scholarships, technology support, advocacy and free feminine hygiene products. This even includes free bras.

“Just to arm them with the resources, so they can stay in school and graduate,” she said.

Since the center opened, it has continued to expand and Bacabac said she hopes to see more men get involved and become allies for the center.

“Because if we have more male allies, then they would come to appreciate not just our struggles and the things we still are fighting for in terms of equality, but they would appreciate what we can bring to the table.”

The female perspective in leadership roles is important and needed, she said, as it offers a complimentary, community-based approach that’s more fluid and circular, such as negotiation.

“We have to be a little more collaborative, a little less hierarchal.”

Hildale Mayor Donia Jessop was recognized as a woman of the century, Hurricane, Utah, Aug. 19, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

Hildale Mayor Donia Jessop told St. George News that part of the reason for the inequality has to do with aspects of the predominant culture.

“Traditionally, women in Utah are used to taking that second seat. It’s not comfortable to step out and be leaders in the political field. It’s comfortable in church and with their families – that’s where they really rule, but it’s just not comfortable.”

Utah has the strongest women, Jessop said.

“They came across the Plains. They settled. They lost families. They lost children and they still persevered. All of our history of Utah women and men – that is who we are. We are hard workers; we are trendsetters; we’re trailblazers – that is what we do.”

While this may be considered a strength of Utah women, when it comes to women taking leadership in areas such as politics it’s an unnatural landscape. Jessop said that has a lot to with the predominant upbringing and religious beliefs.

“We were all taught to be ladies and to take care of our families and that was the most important purpose that we were here for.”

But Jessops said things are now changing.

And now we’re saying, ‘Step up and take your place at the table.’ And they’re like, ‘But what does that look like? What does that feel like?’ It is a scary thing. I don’t think women realize how much they’re needed at the table. We need that voice. We need that insight that can only come from a woman. Women have a different perspective. We need that perspective. That’s how change is going to come around. Change that can only happen once women take a seat at the table.

When Jessop was elected, she said the mayor she unseated, Philip Barlow, sent her an article about the all-women City Council of Kanab and told her how proud he was of her.

Jessop shared Bacabac’s sentiment in seeing education as the best tool to overcome barriers and empower oneself.

“I don’t necessarily mean go to school for it, I mean dive deep, figure out what’s going on with you and do your work. Read your books. Find out what you need, so when you speak, you don’t sound like a fool. That’s how it was for me – I didn’t want to sound like a fool.”

She said she had to get very clear in her head that her love and her passion for her people was enough in the beginning, and that through that, she would continue to educate herself and lead with her heart.

“I didn’t need the highest education. I didn’t need all the political science. I needed a passion, a drive to do it. You can learn as you go. When I started to empower myself through reading and study – that was after I became mayor. What seated me was my passion for my people.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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