Idaho senator continues effort to protect sexual assault victims

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The Idaho State legislature meets from January to April of each year. Photo credit: Chester Chan.
The Idaho State legislature meets from January to April of each year. Photo credit: Chester Chan.

When Melissa Wintrow was approached in 2014 and asked if she wanted to run for the Idaho Legislature, she said she was scared to death. Even though she didn’t have much experience in government, she did have experience in politics from her time working in higher education. 

“Politics are part of everything,” Wintrow said. “Politics are really how you manage relationships and convince people and persuade and work together to get things done.”

Wintrow ended up winning her primary race by 150 votes in 2014 before taking her seat in the Idaho House of Representatives the next year. 

Most of Wintrow’s time in the Idaho House and Senate has focused on making sure victims of sexual and domestic violence are treated with dignity and respect and are taken seriously.

During her time as the director of the former Women’s Center — now known as the Gender Equity Center — at Boise State University, she interacted with sexual assault victims. She knows where the gaps in the system are. 

“Here now I’m in a policy seat where I can actually take all I learned working with victims and create policy that helps,” Wintrow said. 

Since 2016, Wintrow has passed five pieces of legislation and introduced countless others. These intend to help victims of sexual assault transform how Idaho processes, tracks and preserves sexual assault kit evidence. 

Wintrow said she’s experienced increased difficulties as a woman in politics in Idaho. However, she said these difficulties are just a reality of living in a patriarchal culture. 

“As a woman in the statehouse, I definitely have problems. It is very difficult being a woman and there are many times when I have to consciously think, “Do I say something today or not?” Not just because I’m a Democrat, but because I’m a female Democrat and how are they going to respond to it?”

Wintrow did not hesitate to define the word “patriarchy”. 

“Patriarchy doesn’t mean I hate men — It means I’m identifying a system where men are valued more than women,” Wintrow said. “Men are at the center. It’s male-dominated and it’s male-controlled.”

Wintrow continued with an explanation of how this affects society.

“When we talk about that, we’re talking about a traditional system where people have an idea about what traditional gender roles are and those traditional gender roles don’t always include women being leaders, women being vocal,” Winthrow said. “All those stereotypes are hanging on to me.”

Wintrow said stepping away from these stereotypes and traditional gender roles has led to backlash. 

“The minute I step out and be a human being and not one of those roles, unintentionally, because of the way we’ve been socialized, I get negative responses,” Wintrow said. “I have a male colleague who sits next to me on state affairs and on the floor and I have often joked that he can say the same thing as I say and say it emphatically and he gets by with it whereas when I do it, people get mad and I’m labeled as the “B” word.” 

However, Wintrow said these negative associations are due mostly to how we’ve been socialized to think about gender.

Wintrow advised that any woman who wants to run for political office face her fears and push through any apprehension or self-confidence issues. 

“When there’s a door opening, even if you’re afraid, find the support you need around you, but there’s a lot to be learned by walking through that fear,” Wintrow said. 

To those who are nervous about running for office, Wintrow assured them that they only need a few things to do well in the position. 

“As long as you’re willing to learn, as long as you have some humility, as long as you’re willing to negotiate and compromise and do your research and be willing to make hard choices in the face of people berating you, you’ll be okay,” Wintrow said. 

To learn more about Senator Wintrow and her legislative accomplishments, visit her website.