Women of Wisdom: Karen Shepherd

By Jane Lyon

A Catalyst staff millennial learns some valuable history from local luminary.

Karen Shepherd lives in Federal Heights with her husband, Vince, and her black standard poodle, Lola. Shepherd is known for being founder and editor of one of the country’s longest-running and now defunct women’s magazines, Network, started in 1978. She is better known for being elected to the Utah State Senate in 1990, replacing Democrat Frances Farley. Two years later she moved to Washington, D.C. to become the second-ever woman elected by Utah to the United States Congress. In the course of her life she lived and worked in Cairo, Egypt, the Gaza Strip and London.

“I’ve had this very long, checkered career path,” she says. In addition to her political career, she has also been a college English teacher and an international diplomat appointed by Hillary Clinton herself. “Doors opened, and I walked through them,” she says.

Growing up in the ‘40s and ‘50s, mostly in Southern Utah, Shepherd was unfamiliar with any feminist icons and idols. “There weren’t any. Full stop,” she says. By the age of 23, she had a Master’s degree from BYU and was married. She and her husband spent two years in Fort Lewis, Washington, then two years in Cairo, Egypt and even some time during “the summer of love” in San Francisco where they had their first child, Heather. In 1969 they returned to Provo, Utah where Shepherd got a job teaching English at BYU. She’d previously applied for a job at the Utah Trade Technical Institute (now Utah Valley University) where she was told that she was the most qualified person but a man had applied for the same position. “So you know what I did? I said fine, and I went home,” recalls Shepherd. At the time, she thought it made perfect sense.

The “click!”

“Steinem once wrote about women getting that ‘click’ where something will happen to them and they will go, ‘oh this isn’t right.’ My click didn’t happen until I was holding my firstborn watching television and there was a woman in high heels and a fancy dress with a really tight waist and she was sniffing around the toilet bowl. She was sniffing around the toilet bowl for odors!” It was a perfectly normal ad for the time, but in that moment she had that ‘click’ and thought, “This doesn’t make any sense!”

Many feminist ideals common to women in metropolitan parts of the country were news to women like Shepherd and other Utah women. She learned first hand what women outside of Utah were fighting for when she became a delegate at the 1972 National Democratic Convention in Florida. There, she met fellow Utahn Frances Farley. “She was very strong and outspoken,” Shepherd recalls. At the convention, Gloria Steinem advised them, “You need to go back to Utah and start a Women’s Political Caucus.” And so Shepherd, Farley and Brenda Hancock came home and did just that with the help of other female activists like Stephanie Peterson, Irene Fisher, Maggie Pendleton, Maggie Wilde and Lynne Van Dam to name a few.

Progressive Utah women unite

Founders of the Utah Women’s Caucus hoped that 1977 might be the year that things “clicked” for many Utah women. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution that would guarantee equal rights for all American citizens, regardless of sex. It was proposed in 1923 and despite years of debate had never been passed. The last vote on the ERA was coming up. Coincidentally, Utah’s Convention for International Women’s Year was to take place at the Salt Palace in downtown Salt Lake City that same year—a  federally funded conference promoting “equality between men and women.”

As Utah had the largest women’s organization in the world, the conference committee decided to invite the Relief Society to join the conversation. Relief Society President Barbara Smith quickly reported the convention plans to her (male) superiors. L.D.S. Church Apostle Ezra Taft Benson sent a letter to every ward in the state ordering them to send “10 women plus one man to guard them and manage them” to the event.

“We were expecting 300, maybe 400 people,” Shepherd says. Instead, 13,000 women descended on the Salt Palace—13,000 women primed to believe that feminists were a serious threat to their lifestyle.

Chaos at the convention

The convention was supposed to be centered around thoughtful dialogue, voting on resolutions and workshops that would help women with issues such as childcare and running for office. “I hardly remember what happened because I was so focused on calming people down and getting them quietly from one place to another. I was the one with a walkie talkie trying to do crowd control. It was a nightmare,” says Shepherd. She describes a chaotic, hot scene of frantic women and crying babies where the first collective emotion was fear and the second was anger. Displays were being torn down, workshops were overtaken by negative rhetoric and every positive resolution that was brought up to support women and families was voted down.

“The first night, they wouldn’t adjourn. It was midnight, but they refused to adjourn because they were afraid we would pass dreadful things if they weren’t there.” Esther Landa, another feminist icon in Utah’s history, played emcee that day with more grace than anyone could have imagined, Shepherd recalls. Landa worked to keep the trust between the groups of women so that eventually, everyone could go home and get some sleep before the second day of the convention. Resolutions regarding safe abortions, sex education and homosexual rights were to be voted on and sent to the national convention. But there were no resolutions. Everything was voted down. “They voted down every single good thing.”

It wasn’t a case of democracy; It was a case of women doing what their patriarch told them to do, Shepherd says. From the sublime to the insane, women of the Relief Society believed that feminists had major plans to damage the nuclear family. To them, the ERA meant men and women using the same bathrooms, women getting drafted into war and families falling apart.

Reconsidering the past, the gains and losses

“The 1977 election destroyed the Democratic party for 30 years.  We had no idea we were doing that, of course, but we cheered every radical resolution possible. Of course, one of them was leaving Vietnam immediately but there were also many resolutions about gay rights and women’s rights and abortion. We scared the nation to death,” says Karen.

When asked if she would go to bat for the ERA again, Shepherd shook her head. “I wouldn’t go into the streets to fight for it again. I have thought, what if we put that much energy into just getting child care or health care? I think, on the whole, it would help women more.”

To Shepherd, the biggest victory for women was Roe V. Wade, a 1973 Supreme Court decision that affirmed a constitutional right of access to safe and legal abortions. Only one year before,  birth control had been made legally available for all U.S. citizens regardless of marital status. She believes that the biggest barrier to women’s success is not having that control over our bodies. While Shepherd does not believe Roe V. Wade will be overturned, she warns that the current administration will begin to make it nearly impossible to access a safe abortion.

Another victory for women was Title IX. This 1972 civil rights law prevented women and girls from being subject to “discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” Title IX completely changed the way sports looked in public education. Girls became more competitive, more active and more confident in their bodies. “Study after study says that girls who are in sports don’t lose confidence in themselves when they’re in their early teens and they are more likely to see themselves as equal to boys. Now that’s something!” Shepherd said. She also mentions that in 1977 Ivy League schools began accepting women as students, reflecting another notion of equality that should be celebrated.

From youth to adulthood, these ideals are based in equality among men and women. “You know, Sweden has state-run childcare for everybody. It’s affordable for everyone. The kids are thriving! It works. Women’s wages are very narrowly the same as men’s and their legislature is almost 50/50 male/female,” says Shepherd.

To this day, Shepherd is still a passionate political activist. After learning so much from her time in office, she realized the importance of redistricting and directed a lot of her energy into Better Boundaries Utah, Proposition 4 on this fall’s ballot. Utah, along with most other states, has long suffered from gerrymandering—when politicians manipulate the political district maps for their own personal gain. This allows politicians to essentially choose their voters. Their slogan: “Voters should choose their politicians. Politicians shouldn’t choose their voters.”

Alongside her advocacy for Prop 4, Shepherd also proudly serves on the board of the Fourth Street Clinic as co-chair of the Development Committee.

What final words would Karen Shepherd like to pass on to the millennial generation of women? “You don’t just walk down the path, you guys have got to make the path!” she says adamently. “We went up, up, up, and now we’ve gone down, down, down, and you have to go up again. We’ve lost the ground we gained.  And you have got to get it all back!”

Jane Lyon is a CATALYST magazine staff member. She is also a singer-songwriter and hosts the monthly open mic night at People’s Cafe.

This article was originally published on September 28, 2018.