It was our community’s pleasure on Friday to welcome to Laramie Carla Hayden, who was sworn in as the 14th Librarian of Congress on September 14, 2016. Hayden became the first woman and the first African American to lead the national library after she was nominated to the position by the nation’s first African American president, Barack Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Hayden came to Laramie to portray the first woman in the world to cast a ballot on Sept. 6, 1870, under laws that gave women and men equal standing during Louisa Swain Day at Johnson, Lummis, Hunkins Plaza in front of the Wyoming House for Historic Women in the city’s downtown. Each year, a different woman portrays Swain in commemoration of her historic vote.
It’s remarkable to think about all those firsts that have taken place between 1870 and today. Things can change a great deal in a relatively short amount of time. But however far we’ve come, we need to keep our eyes forward and continue moving society closer to a place where equal opportunities are available to all people, no matter their identities or backgrounds.
Certainly we can hold high our state’s accomplishments in granting women rights equal to men. We have “Equal Rights” proclaimed at the top of our great seal and identify Wyoming as “The Equality State.” Those are great values to proclaim. But it doesn’t mean we live in a post-gender equality society in Wyoming. There are still areas that we, like all states, can point to and say we can do better.
One of the most obvious places we can look is representation in our state Legislature. Wyoming has the unfortunate designation of being one of six states that has less than 20 percent of its lawmaking body represented by women, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. With 15.6% of its legislative seats held by women, only West Virginia (at 14.2%) and Mississippi (at 13.8%) fared worse than the Cowboy State. Accounting for 49% of the population in Wyoming, it should go without saying that the ratio of women to men lawmakers should be higher.
Wyoming also continues to hover somewhere near the bottom among states when it comes to the gender-pay gap. A state government study showed women here earn on average 32 cents less for every dollar compared with male counterparts, leading to three bills drafted by House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly, a Laramie Democrat, in 2019. That data seemed contested somewhat by a one-year study by the U.S. Census Bureau which ranked Wyoming as 39th in the nation for its gender-pay gap; still, not a figure we should be satisfied with.
A wide-ranging survey conducted in Spring 2018 on the University of Wyoming campus found that one in five women experienced rape while attending college at UW. Compared to national data, the findings were unfortunately typical. As a smaller campus community, however, we should be setting a higher standard for ourselves when it comes to creating a safe environment for people to learn.
No matter what women’s occupation or activities in the community, there are few who wouldn’t be able to cite an instance or instances where they’ve rolled their eyes at a comment or action a man has made, felt uncomfortable or downright feared for their safety. Many sadly have been victims of sexual harassment and assault.
So how can we address these issues? Some could be looked at through a policy lens. Connolly introduced three bills during the 2019 session to address the gender-wage gap and plans to bring more in 2020. There are areas among many of these problems we could potentially find ways to make progress by law. However, so much of it must be a cultural change that each of us is actively working toward every day.
The grassroots level is really where meaningful change takes place. If we’re disappointed at how many women serve in our Legislature, then we should encourage women in our communities to consider whether they should make a go for office. We know the state is abundant in capable, thoughtful, intelligent women, and it would be uplifting to see the candidate pool filled with more women. Even if women don’t succeed in challenging incumbents or their challengers, it’s an inspiration to women and girls to see women’s names and faces on the campaign trail and ballots. It should be made abundantly clear to young women, too, that they can achieve a high level of success and wield significant power if they so choose.
When it comes to harassment and violence, there are also ways to address these problems through policy. But again, the most effective way to make positive change is to make it clear to men and boys that this type of behavior is completely unacceptable and should result in serious consequences when acted upon. Whatever we do on the reactive end, whether that’s investigative or punitive or anything else, it’s more a matter of sending a proactive message that this is not the way to treat people. The perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault and the motivations that lead to that behavior are what should be addressed rather than trying to clean up everything after bad behavior or the commission of crimes.
The point is that we should be proud when we reflect on 150 years of women’s suffrage in Wyoming in 2019. In 2020, Louisa Swain day will mark the 150th anniversary of her historic vote while the nation celebrates the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment. As we look forward to that celebration, let’s work as a community to continue advancing equity in all facets and make sure that we lead the nation in civil rights.