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Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, Rep. Muffy Davis, D-Ketchum, Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding

What has your experience been like as a woman serving in the Idaho Legislature?

Stennett: I walked into it saying that I was duly elected by the people who want me in office and therefore I have as much right to be in the room as anybody else. We all represent roughly the same amount of people and therefore we have equal standing. There’s been a rare occasion where someone who is used to being in a patriarchal environment will behave patriarchally toward me, but for the most part everyone has been respectful. But I work very hard to be firm, hold my stance, be respectful, not lose my cool and understand that we are going to have differences of opinion and that we are going to be adults and have those discussions. I think when you set that tone it’s infrequent that you get a lot of pushback, at least in person.

Toone: The Legislature kind of was an eye opener, because it really was lopsided [in terms of male and female representation]. In my career as an educator, men and women were pretty evenly split. I never really noticed that there was an imbalance. And then when I got to the Legislature and started working there, it really was unbalanced. We are making progress, but there is an imbalance. In today’s world, and especially with the celebration of the 19th Amendment, it makes you pay attention a little bit more.

Davis: I think it’s been great [serving in the Legislature as a woman]. Our minority leadership on both sides, House and Senate, are both powerful, strong women. [House Minority Leader] Rep. Ilana Rubel and [Senate Minority Leader] Sen. Stennett are both amazingly strong, qualified and smart. Unfortunately, we don’t have many chairs of committees who are women, but hopefully that will start changing. I think we’re getting there. Of course, we wanted it yesterday. But I think there’s been strong leadership there. And I’ve never felt disrespected or anything because of being a woman.

What do women bring to the Legislature?

Stennett: Women lead as a team, typically. We try to bring each other’s best talents forward. I think that is a female way to lead. We do approach things differently, and I think that’s an asset.

Those of us who are privileged enough to be representing men and women [in the Legislature] should recognize the breadth and depth and magnitude of the service that we’ve been handed to do. I think that’s true of anybody, but I think as women we tend to be particularly sensitive to family needs. What we think is important for American families and lives is driven from that female perspective, which is the foundation on which everything else springs from.

We’ve got to recognize that we’re trying to deal with many different experiences and as many people as we can. I think we’ve got to bring that heart to it, that sensitivity and kindness. I think women typically bring that to the table when they’re working with other people.

Toone: Women are half of our population, and they see things from a slightly different angle. Women have a different point of view. Their experiences are different in life. They have different medical issues. And I just feel that it has to be, it should be, 50 percent of the conversation.

Davis: I think the more diversity we can have anywhere, the better perspective we’re going to get and the more we’re going to meet our constituents’ needs. I think hearing all perspectives and multiple sides of the story will help us create a better Legislature and meet needs for more people. The men’s perspective is important as well.

We’re a very diverse state—geographically, economically. We need to have all that diversity represented. That’s why having women there is vital and important.

What do you see as the most important issues Idaho women are facing right now?

Stennett: Equal pay for the same job. Across the U.S.—and in Idaho it’s no different—if two equally qualified people are in a position, the woman is going to get less money. I think wages overall is a problem for all people in Idaho. We have the most minimum wage earners per capita in the nation, and it’s mostly women in these lesser paid positions.

I think making sure [women] have enough resources to thrive and do the best they can with their families is the first part. Education so they can thrive and be whatever they choose to be. Better health care, paid maternity leave. These are things we do very poorly that would be incredibly helpful to a woman and her family. I can think of a myriad of things we could be doing better.

Davis: Equal pay and child care support. Especially now with COVID, and in this day and age, families need two incomes. Kids might be going back to school, and they might not be. Historically, in the family, the woman has been the one who takes care of [the kids]. There are added challenges now, and we need to make sure we are meeting whatever those added challenges are.

Which Idaho women do you look up to?

Stennett: I have so much respect for [Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise] and [Sen. Maryanne Jordan, D-Boise], who have such different talents and qualities that I don’t have. I learn every day from them.

I have a lot of respect for those that have gone before us, not only in the Legislature but in other really difficult roles. Like Bethine Church. She was scary bright, equally bright to [her husband] Sen. Frank Church, but she had such a warmth about her. They were the type of politicians where people would drop into their house all the time and have dinner with them and deep discussions. It’s those sorts of examples that we need so much more of right now, where people can demonstrate that kind heart and still be incredibly powerful in their positions.

And [Davis and Toone], who I work with every day and love and adore. When we go door to door, Sally [Toone] is so loved. She’s salt of the earth, a lovely woman. And of course, Muffy [Davis] is adored around here. She is the kindest person.

Toone: One is Rep. Maxine Bell [R-Jerome], who just retired. She was just a role model and she always spoke so elegantly, never raised her voice, and got her point across. It was a privilege to serve one term with her. I also look up to [retired state Rep.] Wendy Jaquet. Wendy had so much passion and energy for the job. My heart just pitter-patters for both of those ladies.

Davis: Sally Toone has been a mentor to me in the House. I’m blessed to have two amazing strong women that I came in under. I also immensely respect Wendy Jaquet for all that she has done, trailblazing the way. [Former Sun Valley] Mayor Ruth Lieder was really the first woman I ever knew in a leadership position in government. She was just an amazingly strong woman who was able to really govern and lead so well.

What needs to happen for the Idaho Legislature to achieve a more even balance of representation and power among male and female legislators?

Stennett: I hate to be blunt, but the [Republican legislative] leadership has to allow for it. The nature of the Legislature is the majority party chooses their [committee] chairmen. And I know there have been really, really great women on the Senate floor who are very qualified to be chairwomen who have not been granted a chairwoman position. I heard there were two women running for leadership positions in the [Republican] party in the Senate this year and I’m thrilled. I hope one of them gets it.

All we have control over is the piece we have control over. By our own actions, we have to work harder, be incredibly respectful and just do the best we can and set the example. That helps those that come behind us to follow suit and have the opportunity.

Davis: I think more women need to run. 2018 was a huge year for women running and getting elected into seats. I understand the challenges as a woman, as a mom. You don’t have to run for state government. Run for local government, the PTA, the school board. You can’t do that if you’re not out there and you don’t put your foot in the ring and try for those seats.

I’m not saying every woman’s perspective is the same. It’s good to have a diverse perspective and diverse women. We have in the Legislature on the majority side some conservative women [belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] who are legislators. It’s interesting and good to hear their perspective.

Toone: It’s very difficult, the way we have our citizen legislature, to have young people run. Because how do you have a job and be able to walk away from that for three months [to go to Boise for the legislative session] and still make a living? We have to start making it easier. We’ve just got to start thinking outside of the box to let women have opportunities in traditionally male fields.

It took a long time for us to get Air Force pilots who are women. I can remember being told women don’t fly airplanes way back then. Now it’s just a part of our world. Slowly but surely, I think, those barriers will be brought down in literally every field.

To think that women have only had the right to vote the last 100 years, to me, is appalling, considering our nation is 244 years old. We just have to keep one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward. Progress sometimes moves real slow, but we can’t stop.

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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