A research and policy brief recently released by Susan R. Madsen, professor of management at Utah Valley University, documents the status of women in politics, comparing Utah to the nation at large. A snapshot of the findings show that women occupy 18.5% of the seats in the 113th U.S. Congress, none of which are women from Utah. Nationally, women hold 24.3% of state legislature seats; in Utah specifically, women only hold 16.3%. Across the nation women make up 16% of the attorney general seats, 22% secretary of state seats, and 14% state treasurer seats; in Utah there are currently no women serving in statewide executive offices. [1] The results are blatant and lead us to ask: Where are all of Utah’s female politicians?

Background: General Explanations

            Statistics show that women win elections at the same rate as men, but that fewer choose to run. [2] So the real question is, why are there not more women running for office? A general answer can be found in the research and policy brief’s three key explanations for this social pattern. First, gender socialization continues to affect how individuals “self-identify with politics and express ambition to seek elected office.” [3] While the barriers are slowly breaking down, there are still social expectations and attitudes learned from childhood that deter women from running. Second, despite research showing that women are as effective as men in leadership positions, women are less likely to envision themselves as leaders. And third, “women are less likely than men to be encouraged to run for office.” [4] This finding is crucial when coupled with similar studies that have found women are more likely than men to step forward when they are encouraged and supported to run. [5]
Involvement of women in politics is low throughout the nation, but the rate in Utah is particularly concerning. As of September 2013, the Center for American Progress ranked Utah dead last among all 50 states “in terms of women being in positions of decision making and leadership.” [6] This infamous ranking demands a look at what could additionally be affecting Utah’s shortage of female politicians. And when pondering what makes Utah unique, we need look no further than religion.

The Additional Lens of Religion

            Religion must be taken into account when attempting to understand the trends and norms in Utah. No other state is as “religiously homogeneous” in the nation [7], with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints constituting 70-75% of the population. [8] Utah thus serves as an appropriate case study for the Latter-day Saint religious culture. Each of the explanations mentioned in the brief that contribute to the shortage of women in politics must, then, be viewed through the additional lens of religion to bring about lasting, meaningful change. This is easier said than done since the link has not yet been fully made between women, politics, and religion. However, some aspects of this triangle have begun to be studied, such as the connection between 1) politics and religion and 2) women and politics.

           For example, the conservative values of the LDS church lead most Mormons to identify as Republicans. [9] There is a “strong, statistically significant relationship between activity in the LDS church and political conservatism.” [10]   Also, regardless of denomination, religion has become an identifiable attribute of the Republican Party. The connection between women and politics has also been explored, especially in terms of female presence in the political parties. One such study shows the Republican Party has “a bias against women candidates.” [11] Furthermore, the Center for American Progress ranked states in terms of how women are faring in terms of economic security, leadership, and health. They found that the top ten states are all solidly Democratic voting states, while the lowest ranked states (including Utah) were markedly Republican. [12] In other words, this study suggests the status of women is lower in states that are dominantly Republican.

           From these findings we can infer that religion must somehow influence women in their decision to run for office, but the connection between women and religion in the “women, politics, and religion” triangle remains largely uninvestigated. It would seem that this elephant in the room has influenced the political gender disparity in Utah. Thus in pursuing change we ought to ask, what does the LDS doctrine teach about the role of women? What are the cultural norms related to women that have become the unspoken rule? How do women running for political office fit into this paradigm? Does a community that places such high value on religion require religious approval to achieve change?

Religious Teachings in Relation to Women

            A central teaching of LDS doctrine is the importance of family. Family is paramount, and it shapes the structure of Church programs, the emphasis among the membership, and how the Church responds to issues in the broader community. Apostle Boyd K. Packer said, “We [the Church] analyze the effect of every influence that comes along, as it may ultimately change by way of strengthening, or threaten by way of weakening, the family.” [13]  From this reverence for family comes the importance of motherhood. Motherhood has always been regarded as a highest priority in the LDS community. These teachings are part of gender socialization from childhood. In the October 2013 General Conference, Elder Todd Christofferson spoke specifically against the rising trends and philosophies devaluing and ridiculing marriage, motherhood, and homemaking. He said, “We do not diminish the value of what women or men achieve in any worthy endeavor or career…but we still recognize there is not a higher good than motherhood and fatherhood in marriage.” [14] There is great value placed on women nurturing children in the home. [See Note]. [15] A 1998 study on women in Utah Valley reported that strongly religious women are significantly more likely to be stay-at-home housewives primarily due to religious values and family responsibilities. [16]  Though dated, this study is meaningful in part because the results continue as an LDS cultural norm and because it highlights the existing gap in research literature concerning LDS women.

Religious Culture in Relation to Women

            In an effort to protect the traditional family that has come increasingly under attack, such as being deemed “effectively redundant” [17], the Church continues to highly value and emphasize the role of motherhood for women. In The Family: A Proclamation to the World, the charge to be “primarily responsible for the nurture of their children” [18] is women’s explicitly stated role, although the obligation for men and women to “help one another as equal partners” [19] implies a myriad of other implicit roles and responsibilities. Yet, when those roles are not specifically spelled out in doctrine, religious culture often defines what is broadly acceptable and valued. Running for political office falls into this category; it is not stated as a doctrinal duty and is furthermore encouraged by the Church on a gender-neutral basis.

          Therefore, running for office becomes subject to the culture’s hierarchy of value. For women, this often means choosing an exclusive focus on raising family (because that is seen as most valuable within the culture for them) instead of seeking after opportunities outside the home. This creates a barrier for religious women who desire to fulfill roles in tandem with family/motherhood, yet feel pressure from the religious community to conform to the set norms and expectations. Their explicitly stated religious responsibilities to the family trump their implied responsibilities to use their divinely given gifts in other venues, as perpetuated by the culture.

The “Either/Or” Dilemma

            There is a culturally accepted idea that motherhood and secular leadership are mutually exclusive of each other, out of what is deemed most valuable in the present, and then as a consequence of that initial choice in the long term. Our religious culture tends to perpetuate the idea that life decisions for women are of the  “either/or” variety, a mother or a career, for example, while men’s roles have always been presented as multi-faceted (i.e. preside, provide, protect). In a study conducted by Susan Madsen among Utah LDS women regarding continuing education, she found that “many LDS women cannot envision a life of integration” – meaning being simultaneously married, having children, and taking even one class at a time. [20] Some within the study noted their belief that women should “give up or sacrifice” college for husbands/families, even seeing it as a “duty” to drop out. [21] The study also captured a rare, measured glimpse of our cultural value hierarchy by asking the women to chose the most important and least important value among 15 choices: “family” was chosen as the most important by 85% of those surveyed, while “power/influence” was seen as the least important by 78%. [22]

          With this perspective, should we be surprised that there are not more women running for office in Utah?
Another manifestation of how the either/or paradigm affects politics within Utah is found in the lack of female Republican state delegates. In 2010, only 25% of the delegates were female and only 9.3% of the delegates listed their employment status as “homemaker.” [23] Even fewer women were delegates in 2012, roughly 22%, and only 6% of the delegates listed themselves as “homemakers.” [24] I attempted to explore this phenomenon with the 2010 Republican state delegates for my undergraduate capstone research. I surveyed a random sample of delegates and – among other things - asked why they felt there are so few women Republican state delegates. The most common responses from the females were that women are “too busy with family” and are “intimidated/lack experience.” [25] The first response illustrates the idea of “either/or” when it comes to raising a family in our religious culture, and the second response magnifies the dilemma that then greets women who follow the cultural norms and later attempt to enter the workspace.

Positive or Negative Influence?

One of the greatest challenges then in helping more women run for office within our religious community is dispelling the idea of mutual exclusivity around having a family and being a leader beyond the walls of our own homes. This paper does not delve into the practicalities of achieving this goal [See Note] [26], but instead serves to introduce the critical role religion plays and furthermore suggest we don’t have to abandon traditional family life or shy away from motherhood to see more women in politics. For all women and men, there are times and seasons – no two individuals’ paths need look alike. Rather than pursue homogeneity for women through the imposition of religious culture, we should instead promote a higher path that enables each individual to approach Heavenly Father to know what He would have them do. With such changes in cultural expectations and norms, coupled with a spark of interest, encouragement, and perhaps a unique political model that is open to the untraditional, the future state of leadership in Utah could be vastly different.

          I believe the world would have us conclude that women, politics, and religion (i.e. religious women in politics) do not mesh because of the familial role religion outlines for women, instead of embracing changes we can make within our community that are already inline with our doctrine. We should be at the forefront in showing the world just how much our law and decision-making bodies need covenant women, women endowed with unique skill sets and an innate ability to protect and promote the family. Instead of casting off religion or opting out of political leadership, we can acknowledge the strength that is learned in motherhood, and the capability that comes from following religious counsel and becoming “the guardians of the hearth" [27], not just for our own homes, but perhaps, say, for all the homes in a political district. The Family: A Proclamation to the World even concludes with this call to action: “We call upon responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote these measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society.” [28]

          I submit that women, especially mothers, are qualified as responsible citizens and officers of government. This can be realized as we make space within our religious culture for the skills of motherhood to be applied outside the home. Through mothering, women learn the skills often sought after in the workplace such as managing a budget, communication skills, the art of persuasion, leading a team, time management, and patience. The standard of family does not have to change, but the expectations for who is “qualified” should – starting with helping women within our community see themselves as qualified leaders. The make-up of political leadership could more fully reflect the citizens of Utah as women begin to see themselves as capable of running for office.

Religion as a Driver of Change
            All of this may seem great in theory, but too intangible to be of any consequence, yet recent developments driven by the Church bring a promise of crucial change. A shift in perspective has come with the recent missionary age change from 21 to 19 for young women. [29] As a result, the number of sisters serving has more than doubled over the last year, from 8,100 to 19,500. [30] While the sheer increase in female missionaries provides numerous resulting fruits for us to consider, one of the key triumphs of this change is the shift in cultural expectations and norms that came with the encouragement from Church leaders for young women to serve.  The executive director of the missionary department pointed out that while President Monson noted missionary service is still not an obligation for women, their service and participation is welcomed by the church.  He said, “With that wonderful comment from President Monson, what we see is the young women of this Church looking at missionary service as a viable option for which they can now plan.” [31]

          Suddenly it makes sense and seems less “taboo” to teach and prepare all children and youth to potentially serve a mission. This changes the dynamics of gender socialization reinforced through religious practices. The change in age requirement challenges the cultural stigma attached to serving a mission for young women; no longer will young women choosing to serve a mission be seen as those who just were not yet able to get married. This change in cultural perspective is important, as it breaks down a barrier that previously deterred many young women from serving missions. It is a religiously sanctioned hit to the “either/or” mentality women in our community before faced. As the years progress, we will see just how these changes manifest themselves within the LDS community, but the new light shed on gender dynamics and the opportunities now being experienced by thousands more young women are sure to impact the society at large, including in the realm of politics.      

          Furthermore, the reality of serving a mission provides new experiences and developmental opportunities to thousands more young women that directly translate to opportunities outside the home. Women are learning to effectively communicate. They are gaining confidence, mastering languages, and learning to be scriptorians. These are skills being developed by a generation of young women that might not have otherwise had (or been encouraged to attempt) the experience. These young women are learning to work in teams for the good of others, engaging in meaningful service, and working side by side with those of diverse backgrounds. New positions, like the role of sister training leaders, have been created to provide young women with leadership opportunities and a place within the mission leadership council. [32] These sisters attend ward council and are able to learn how such meetings operate while coming together with other leaders to meet the needs of the congregation. Additionally, the male missionaries are also being impacted as they learn, on a much broader scale now, to work with this large increase of sister missionaries on equal ground. There is power in learning to work with the opposite gender on a common goal without the focus being on personal relationships. Another benefit of the increase in sister missionaries is the heightened visibility and involvement of women in LDS congregations throughout the world. These new sister missionaries need female members to join them on splits and visits. When they come to members’ homes for dinner, they serve as role models for the girls of the Church.

Mission to Politics

            How these changes in our religious community will affect women’s political involvement may also seem entirely theoretical at this point, but the effects of missionary service on later community involvement have already been proven. A mission is credited with helping “young Mormons [be] more formidable in public settings and international settings than others,” according to a Mormon scholar at the University of Richmond. [33] Additionally, the intensive foreign language training often involved with a mission has led many returned missionaries to work for the U.S. State Department. [34] A political role becomes a way to continue influencing the lives of others and an avenue to promote personal values after an LDS mission. Therefore, an increase in women serving missions has the possibility of affecting the future political aspirations of women in the Church.

A Positive Impact

            The research and policy brief that outlined Utah’s dire situation for women in politics offered the following suggestions to help Utahns bring about change.

          Reading these recommendations in light of the missionary age change reinforces the notion that religious communities additionally need religious encouragement to bring lasting change. In faith-based population majorities like Utah, religion cannot be ignored when considering the issues at hand. Similarly, there need not be a separation between women and religion for more women to run for office. Change can happen when there is increased understanding of the power and capability a woman in Zion has to lead and influence decisions regarding the laws of the land. This understanding especially needs to be gained by the women in our community. Couple this with encouragement and opportunities provided by the religious community, and the existing barriers will break down. Despite what the world says, the impact of religion on women in politics does not have to be negative. Religion does not have to be the antithesis of progress. Our voices are needed. It’s time we let religion influence our decision to run for office, instead of pointing to religion as a reason to run from it.


[1] Susan Madsen and D. Candice Backus, “The Status of Women in Utah Politics,” 8 January 2014, http://www.uvu.edu/uwlp/research/snapshots.html. [Back to manuscript].

[2] Ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[3] Ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[4] Ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[5] Ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[6] Ibid.; Anna Chu and Charles Posner, “Explore the Data: The State of Women in America,” Center For American Progress, 25 September 2013, http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/news/2013/09/25/75076/explore-the-data-the-state-of-women-in-america/ . [Back to manuscript]

[7] Magleby, David B., and H.E. "Bud" Scruggs. "Delegates as Trustees: A Study of the
1992 Utah Neighborhood Party Caucuses." Annual Meeting of the Western Political Science Association. Pasadena: Brigham Young University, 1993, 35. [Back to manuscript]

[8] Wald, Kenneth D., and Allison Calhoun-Brown. Religion and Politics in the United
States. 6th Edition. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2011. [Back to manuscript]

[9] Ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[10] Fox, Jeffrey C. "A Typology of LDS Sociopolitical Worldviews." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 42, no. 2 (2003): 279. [Back to manuscript]

[11] Monson, J. Quin, and Scott Riding. "Social Equality Norms for Race, Gender, and
Religion in the American Public During the 2008 Presidential Primaries." The Transformative Election of 2008 Conference. Columbus: Ohio State University, 2009. 6. [Back to manuscript]

[12] Anna Chu and Charles Posner, “Explore the Data: The State of Women in America,” Center For American Progress, 25 September 2013, http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/news/2013/09/25/75076/explore-the-data-the-state-of-women-in-america/. [Back to manuscript]

[13] “Mormonism and Politics/Equal Rights Amendment,” FairMormon, http://en.fairmormon.org/Mormonism_and_politics/Equal_Rights_Amendment . [Back to manuscript]

[14] D. Todd Christofferson, “The Moral Force of Women,” LDS General Conference, October 2013, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/10/the-moral-force-of-women?lang=eng [Back to manuscript]

[15] Note: This is not to imply that all LDS women are stay-at-home mothers, or mothers at all, but only to say that marriage and motherhood are ideal within the religious community and are therefore being specifically addressed here. [Back to manuscript]

[16] Chadwick, Bruce A., and Dean H. Garrett. Women's Religiosity and Employment: The
LDS Experience. Vol. XII, in Latter-Day Saint Social Life: Social Research on the LDS Church and its Members, by James T. Duke, 401-423. Provo: Religious Studies Center Brigham Young University, 1998. 412, 415. [Back to manuscript]

[17] Richard V. Reeves, “How to Save Marriage in America,” The Atlantic, 13 February 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/02/how-to-save-marriage-in-america/283732/ . [Back to manuscript]

[18] The Family: A Proclamation to the World, https://www.lds.org/topics/family-proclamation . [Back to manuscript]

[19] Ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[20] Susan R. Madsen and Cheryl Hanewicz, “The Influence of Religion and Values on a Young Women’s College Decision,” Utah Women and Education Project, April 2011, http://www.utahwomenandeducation.org/assets/RS_No._10-Religion_and_Values.pdf . [Back to manuscript]

[21] Ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[22] Ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[23] 2010 Republican State Delegate Surveys, Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy – Brigham Young University, http://csed.byu.edu/Assets/Utah%20GOP%20Delegate%20Survey%20Results%202010.pdf . [Back to manuscript]

[24] 2012 Republican State Delegate Surveys, Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy – Brigham Young University, http://csed.byu.edu/Assets/2012UtahGOPDelegateSurveyResults.pdf . [Back to manuscript]

[25] Rachel F. Zirkle, “A Gendered Zion?: A Study of the 2010 Utah Republican Delegate Gender Gap,” SquareTwo, Vol. 4 No. 3, (Fall 2011), http://www.squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleZirkleUtahRepublicans.html . [Back to manuscript]

[26] Note: Although it is helpful and comforting to know that there are organizations, such as Real Women Run, targeting these issues right now in Utah. [Back to manuscript]

[27] “’Guardians of the Hearth’: Establishing, Nurturing, and Defending the Family,” Daughters in My Kingdom, Chapter 9, https://www.lds.org/relief-society/daughters-in-my-kingdom/manual/guardians-of-the-hearth-establishing-nurturing-and-defending-the-family?lang=eng . [Back to manuscript]

[28] The Family: A Proclamation to the World, https://www.lds.org/topics/family-proclamation . [Back to manuscript]

[29] Thomas S. Monson, “Welcome to Conference,” LDS General Conference, October 2012, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2012/10/welcome-to-conference?lang=eng . [Back to manuscript]

[30] “Thousands More Mormons Choose Missionary Service,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Newsroom, 3 October 2013, http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/thousands-more-mormons-choose-missionary-service . [Back to manuscript]

[31] Ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[32] Ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[33] Dan Gilgoff, “With or Without Romney, D.C. A Surprising Mormon Stronghold,” CNN, 12 May 2012, http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/05/12/hfr-with-or-without-romney-d-c-a-surprising-mormon-stronghold/?hpt=hp_c2 . [Back to manuscript]

[34] Ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[35] Susan Madsen and D. Candice Backus, “The Status of Women in Utah Politics,” 8 January 2014, http://www.uvu.edu/uwlp/research/snapshots.html . [Back to manuscript]

[36] Ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[37] Ibid. [Back to manuscript]

Full Citation for this Article: Zirkle, Rachel Fairclough (2014) "The Political Impact of Religion: Women in Utah Politics," SquareTwo, Vol. 7 No. 1 (Spring 2014), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleZirkleWomenUtahPolitics2014.html, accessed <give access date>

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