Utah Gov. Levitt, center, signs the bill

SALT LAKE CITY (WOMENSENEWS)–They stalked this state’s notoriously conservative state legislators, pressing each state senator and representative to talk about the grave disparity in state salaries paid to men and women in Utah. They handed out fact sheets filled with talking points, so none of the legislators could say later that the information was unclear. They kept a log, recording each lawmaker’s reaction. A smiley face after the legislator’s name meant the response was positive. A frown meant there was work to be done. After each meeting, even if it was the briefest of hallway conclaves, they wrote thank-you notes.

According to 17-year-old Susan Sparrow, who led the charge, whenever they went to the Capitol–especially when testifying in committee–they wore “big, obnoxious blue buttons,” that said: “Aren’t We Worth It?”

Last week, the work of Sparrow and 19 other young lobbyists who championed a bill (HB 81) authorizing a study on salary inequities between male and female state workers paid off. They attended a ceremony on April 4 to celebrate the measure’s 71-1 passage. The landslide was all the more satisfying for them because in previous years at least two similar efforts by adult supporters had collapsed.

“These were professional lobbyists,” said Rep. Ty McCartney, a Democrat who is also a police officer here. “We also had a very contentious issue going on involving banks and credit unions. I would say that lobbying effort was only mediocre compared to these so-called novices. They were unbelievable.”

Sparrow launched her campaign after attending a leadership conference last year at Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. She decided that if she was going to change the world, she should probably start with her home state.

A majority of Utah residents belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which encourages women to stay home and raise children, and which does little to promote women within its ranks, Sparrow noted. “Utah is a particularly bad place for women in politics,” she said. “It’s kind of the nature of the society that it’s highly patriarchal, to put it gently. I felt sick of seeing that, and I wanted to do something to change that. I felt like this was the time.”

Besides, Sparrow found herself looking ahead to her own professional future. “I don’t want to find myself in the work force, making less than someone that I’m more qualified than,” she said. “It’s bad here, and it’s even worse for women of color.”

Pay Disparity Even Worse in Utah

Sparrow learned that in the United States, women, on average, make 73 cents to every dollar earned by a man. In Utah, the figure for women is 67 cents.

To interest other girls at her small, private high school, she came up with the acronym POWER-Up, for Politics Open to Women for Equal Representation. But she knew she needed more than a catchy name in an environment where “feminism has this horrible stigma attached to it.” The stereotype, said Sparrow, is that “all feminists are man-haters, all feminists are lesbians, all feminists are femi-Nazis. They don’t shave and they wear combat boots. I don’t fit any of those stereotypes, so I came to terms with the idea that those images were not okay.”

Sparrow arranged for a showing at her school last winter of “A Passion for Justice,” a documentary on gender discrimination made by the National Organization for Women. She offered pizza, reasoning, “you need an incentive.” Even boys came to see the film and were “blown away by the injustices that remain in our society,” Sparrow said.

Soon she recruited a group of friends to help run the pay-equity bill through the legislature. Sparrow, meanwhile, conducted her own research. She pored through texts at the University of Utah and searched the files of agencies such as the National Coalition for Pay Equity and the U.S. Census Bureau in search of data about gender-based salary inequity. Then she compiled fact sheets and talking points to distribute to the legislators.

Sparrow also contacted representatives of several Utah nonprofits, who offered coaching in the arts of political persuasion to the fledgling lobbyists. They learned fast. They started by targeting Utah’s 76 state representatives. In a lobbying effort that lasted many months, they talked to 20 of the lawmakers each day they visited the capitol. They made sure that their message was as consistent as it was concerted. To heighten their visibility, they wore brightly colored “Aren’t We Worth It?” sashes along with their blue buttons. During committee hearings they linked arms and held hands to show unity.

“I had some doubts when I first heard these were high school girls who were coming to work on this bill,” said McCartney, who had failed in earlier efforts to authorize a study on gender-based pay discrimination. “I thought, how effective could they be? But these girls, as soon as they hit the Capitol steps, they were hard at work. I had never seen anything like it.”

Sparrow acknowledged that a study is only a first step. The next step, she said, is to enact a measure that would require fiscal authorization, which would be unlikely at a time of state budgetary crisis. She said her group plans to pursue the issue next year, once the study has been completed.

Cookies Priced Like Pay Scales

One tactic that Sparrow’s group will probably resurrect when the full legislation is introduced is the POWER-Up cookie handout. Sparrow planned to sell homemade cookies at the Capitol and to charge male customers $1 and female customers 67 cents to dramatize pay inequities. After she learned that selling food at the Capitol was not permitted, however, she handed the elaborately decorated cookies out for free. Small cookies said “67 cents,” and the larger ones said “$1.”

She said that the lobbyists also gave out fact sheets that contrasted a woman’s average weekly salary in about 30 state-government jobs in Utah against a comparable position held by a man. “We said they couldn’t take a cookie unless they took a fact sheet.”

When one male legislator condescendingly told Sparrow that he had five daughters who seemed to be doing just fine, she retorted by advising him to start giving his girls less lunch money so they could get used to the salary gap while they were young. The legislator voted for the bill.

Sparrow said the experience has fueled her determination to work in politics. But she is not sure if she will stay in Utah, in large measure because she feels opportunities for women are limited in her home state.

Ty McCartney, the state representative, said it would be a shame if Sparrow doesn’t pursue her political ambitions in Utah. “If she doesn’t,” he said, “I think the state of Utah will be very deprived.”

Elizabeth Mehren is a national correspondent for The Los Angeles Times.

For more information:

Mt. Holyoke College–Take the Lead program:

UPNet Fact Sheet HB 81 Compensation Study
Sponsored by Rep. Ty McCartney:

Utah Progressive Network: