When thinking of the American West, one might picture Rocky Mountain ranges, the sage-colored foothills of the Great Basin, the Pacific’s long coastal shoreline, or maybe even images of cowboys and Hollywood and cacti. What is less often thought about, but equally true of the Western United States, is the powerful engagement of women in politics at all levels.

In the 2022 midterm elections, Colorado reached gender parity among elected officials in the state legislature; only the second state to do so after Nevada. Further, Nevada is the only state to achieve equal representation among Black and non-Black women in its state legislature. Washington, Oregon, New Mexico, and Arizona are close to closing their gender gaps, as they are nearing women’s majorities.

Clearly, the West is setting the pace for women’s representation in state governments. But why?

Women employees in front of a Western Union Telegraph Office, Seattle, 1918

A history of attempting gender equality…

Let’s look to history: The West was the first region in the United States to see widespread women’s suffrage: Some women cast votes in Utah and Wyoming as early as 1870, nearly five decades before the 19th Amendment was ratified. The first U.S. territory to grant women the right to vote was Wyoming in 1869, and the first state was Colorado, which elected women to its parliamentary body in 1894. In fact, the Colorado legislature was the first parliamentary body to elect women in the world.

…marred by brutal racial policies

It is important to understand the changes the West experienced throughout the 19th century, as norms regarding race, gender, and citizenship were challenged, upended, and transformed. Following the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Indigenous people were subjected to brutal relocation — both voluntary and forced. Hispano families became American citizens overnight following the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, but suffered language discrimination and the loss of their land rights. Throughout the Civil War, Northern states and abolitionists made repeated efforts to keep slavery out of the Western territories and preserve civil rights, and were relatively successful — giving entirely new options to Black people. The xenophobic Page Act of 1875, which prohibited the entry of Chinese women to the United States, following the mass migration of Chinese immigrants to build the Transcontinental Railroad, was the country’s first restrictive immigration policy.

Native American women parading on horseback at the Round-Up in Pendleton, Oregon, 1910

Today we have new opportunities for equity

The land out West was so harsh and rugged that pioneers set aside traditional social norms, and instead focused on survival and resilience. Given the constant state of change, ideas like “men’s work” vs. “women’s work” fell away.

Just like in the Old West, contemporary voters recognize we need to tap all of our resources to solve our problems — and that includes engaging women toward a truly representative democracy at every level of government. Electing more women increases the chance that policy-making and deliberation include women’s views and lived experiences.

We have seen Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Arizona often rank highly for voter turnouts in this country. When women are voting and feeling impactful, that leads to more women running for office.

Our mission is to support this cycle. Vote Run Lead is a non-profit training powerhouse that focuses on increasing women’s representation in elected office. Seeking to unleash the political power of women as voters, candidates, and leaders, Vote Run Lead has trained more than 55,000 women nationwide to run for office. We’re now set to expand our quest for gender parity in statehouses in Western states.

As we expand our efforts to recruit, train, and elect women to public office across this sprawling expanse, we pay homage to pioneers who came before us, in the same spirit of social justice and pursuit of equality. We know that the unyielding forces that spurred women throughout history carry through to the next generation of women leaders.

Sabrina Shulman is the chief political officer at Vote Run Lead, a nonprofit that trains women to run for political office. Shulman co-wrote this opinion with State Sen. Faith Winter (D-Adams), an alumna of Vote Run Lead.