By Karen Einisman, communications contractor and freelance writer.
If hashtags tell us anything about American culture and the current political environment, then the #FutureIsFemale. From #IAmANastyWoman and #ShePersisted to #MeToo and #TimesUp, our nation is reckoning with its history of inequality, misogyny and sexual harassment.
As this new era unfolds, more women are stepping forward, raising their voices and entering the political arena for the first time.
In Colorado, women serving in political positions is nothing new. In 1893, the Centennial State became the first to give women the right to vote through a popular election. The following year, voters elected the first three female legislators in the country to the State House of Representatives.
And, while Colorado comes the closest to gender parity than almost any other state, we have yet to elect a woman to serve as either governor or U.S. Senator.
The question that remains unanswered in 2018 is whether the current movement toward gender parity can shatter the glass ceiling that seems to have kept Colorado women from reaching the state’s highest offices.
What changed following the 2016 election and the subsequent Women’s March is that women are no longer waiting for encouragement from others to run for office. In 2017, organizations that train women to run saw increased interest from potential first-time candidates who want to make change in their communities.
As we commemorate Women’s History Month, Women of Denver is celebrating three remarkable women who have made the leap into politics and who hope to inspire others to do the same.
REP. FAITH WINTER
At 27, state Rep. Faith Winter ran for office because someone she admired asked her to run. While lobbying then-state Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, the senator encouraged her to consider a run for office. And so began Winter’s political career, one in which she addresses the issues women care about most, first as a Westminster city council member and then as a state representative. Now, she is parlaying that political work into a run for the state senate.
Winter’s mission is to improve the lives of Coloradans through affordable housing, paid family leave and climate-change legislation. She also believes that Colorado is reaching a boiling point on housing affordability.
“Even in rural places, housing is not affordable,” she said.
She hopes to address the state’s lack of paid family leave as well, working to pass legislation that would provide leave to families by creating a state insurance pool. Currently, only 21 percent of residents have access to this benefit.
“Whether you need to take care of a child, an adult parent or yourself, you would pull from the insurance pool for wage replacement,” she explained, noting the cost per individual is as inexpensive as a cup of coffee per week.
Aside from making news for the issues she supports, Winter recently joined the #MeToo movement by telling her story. She came forward to protect other women, she says, after hearing about continued harassment by fellow legislator, Rep. Steve Lebsock. By speaking up, Winter believes she is helping move our culture toward one of zero tolerance. We need to not only “stop [this] behavior, but also empower women and other survivors to hold sexual harassers accountable,” she said.
Winter is also helping to shift the makeup of our political landscape. For the past 12 years, she has encouraged and trained women to run for office.
“Our democracy is based on a diversity of ideas,” she said. “If all elected officials look the same, we’re not going to come up with the best solutions.”
That’s why she believes our legislatures need more diversity, including more women. She is inspired by working to empower them raise their voices.
“It’s fun work. It’s necessary work. And, I think its work that is going to change the world."
A sense of obligation to others runs deep in Cary Kennedy’s family. Her mother, a social worker, felt so strongly about this notion that she fostered three children, giving them opportunities to succeed and motivating Kennedy to dedicate her work to helping people who do not have those same opportunities.
Beginning her political career as an intern in Governor Roy Romer’s office, Kennedy has gone on to serve as Denver’s Deputy Mayor and Chief Financial Officer and, most recently, Colorado State Treasurer. In keeping with those values, she helped create the “Building Excellent Schools Today” program, which works to ensure that all students have the same opportunity to attend modern learning facilities.
“Students in poor school districts were in buildings with lead pipes, asbestos, mold and sewage backups,” she said. “[This] program has rebuilt or remodeled over 380 schools across the state.”
Kennedy’s next move? She is running for governor. In addition to education, her top priorities are health care accessibility and affordability, and protecting open spaces, air and water in the face of the state’s continued growth.
As governor, Kennedy would give all Coloradans the option to buy affordable public health insurance, and she would address climate change by ensuring the state meets the Paris Agreement’s emissions-reduction target, “with or without Washington,” she said.
Kennedy is among a long list of Colorado women who have helped shape the state in the past 140 years, but she points to the glass ceiling that needs to be shattered.
“Women in office pass laws that help women and families,” she said. “Improving our public schools, expanding health care, growing Colorado’s economy and working to protect our beautiful state.”
Can you hear that ceiling cracking?
After entrepreneur Heidi Ganahl sold Camp Bow Wow, her chain of pet care franchises, in 2014, she wanted to give back to her community. Her belief that education is the key to the American Dream led her to run for the Board of Regents at her alma mater, the University of Colorado.
Since winning her at-large seat in 2016, Ganahl has worked on campus issues of affordability, free speech, and safety. She’s made progress in the area of affordability, by instituting a four-year tuition guarantee, eliminating extra fees, and reducing the cost of course materials by piloting a digital library. And in the area of free speech, Ganahl helped CU create a new student debate group to teach students “how to think, not what to think,” she said.
During her term, she has tackled student safety by addressing issues of drugs & alcohol, depression, and sexual assault—a personal topic as the mother of a sexual assault survivor. After watching the justice system fail her daughter following the assault, Ganahl founded the Fight Back Foundation to try and change the harrowing experience. Of the #MeToo movement, she is hopeful that it can bring about real change, but notes that “we have to back up the bravery of those speaking up with a justice system that works.”
Ganahl, who was named one of Fortune Magazine’s 10 Most Promising Women Entrepreneurs, wants to see change in the number of women in Colorado politics as well. She is mentoring potential candidates on both sides of the aisle, encouraging them to run for office.
“Women across the country are recognizing that the decisions made at all levels of our society have a direct impact on them, and their families,” she said. “We have to encourage our current female leaders to step up and aim big because [we] bring a different perspective to the table.”
Ganahl has proven that if anyone can mentor someone to “go big”, it’s her.