Morgan Lyon Cotti grew up with a mom who worked in politics. These early experience shaped in own future as she stepped into advanced education and made choices about work, marriage, and motherhood, managing the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. She shares her experiences in these areas – and current thoughts on women in politics.
You’ve told me that had really great female role models growing up in Bountiful, Utah. Would you tell me about them and the influence that they had on you when you were growing up?
My mom, Nancy Lyon, actually had a book club made up of women from our ward. It took in just a couple of streets, but for some reason there were all these really strong women who were also active mothers and very active in their children’s lives. My mom actually went back to work for the Davis School District when I was seven. She had been a teacher before she took a decade off work to raise me and my four siblings. She also decided to run for the state legislature, and she won, she was the first woman ever elected from our district. That was an exciting time in the early 90’s, because the number of women in the legislature was increasing. We had a female attorney general and a female lieutenant governor.
More locally to me, my mom’s friends were business women, CPAs, a law professor at BYU. One was an administrator in Granite School District. I am sure my mom and all of these women were drawn together because they had those working lives in common. They were working moms and I’ve noticed a divide in the wards I’ve been in down that line: I don’t think it’s intentional, but the stay-at-home moms go to the park during the day and the working moms can’t do that. My mom also had lots of friends who were stay-at-home moms, but the narrative in my own home was strongly focused on education.
My dad constantly was pushing us to math and sciences, although none of us went that route. I have one sister who is a doctor in physical therapy, so she is the closest. My dad had a saying: “Don’t let any door close for you. Focus on your education and get good grades so that you can do what you want.” He often spoke about how one of his biggest regrets was that he didn’t finish his master’s degree, but my mom did. Historically, in my family, I grew up hearing stories about my great-great-great grandmothers. Margaret Cowan had a dream in which she saw butterflies coming from her dress, which inspired her to join the Mormon Church in Ireland and later emigrate with her family. As descendants of that great lady, we all consider ourselves to be “Margaret’s butterflies.”
Isabel Bryson, the woman who would later become Margaret’s daughter in law, had the courage to convert, then leave Ireland after a flu epidemic killed her husband and three of her children. She crossed the ocean and plains as a single mother, tragically, by the time she reached Salt Lake both of her remaining children had died. She was one of those midwives who gave blessings. And I always knew those stories. The fact that women gave blessings was never news to me. I always knew it.
I had so many strong women in my neighborhood and in my family history that there was never even the thought that I shouldn’t try to be one of those women myself.
As a teenager I felt deprived and I knew I was a latchkey kid. I had to get rides to soccer practice and things like that. But I think the benefits of having that strength in my mom far outweighed the challenges. Like I could tell random stories about how I got my driver’s license a day late because my mom was busy at the legislature and my birthday was during the legislative session. So I had little things like that, that I resented at the time. But I have in no way held onto those.
It also provided amazing opportunities. Each year on my birthday my mother would take me with her to the Legislature. I got to sit in on meetings and roam the capitol, from a very young age. I recognize that she needed to work for her sanity. I think it made her a better mom and I am really proud of what she has accomplished in the legislature. She is the one who sponsored the marital rape bill in the 90’s. And she did a lot for business and education. She eventually worked as the Vice President of Government Affairs at the University of Utah. She started that job while I was there as a student, so that was always really cool for me.
Since she retired she has served two full-time missions with my dad, one in New York City and one in Geneva, Switzerland.
And how did you personally balance the narrative you were hearing at home with what you were hearing at Church, that presumably was much more focused on your future life as a mother?
I was sassy. I would tell my teachers I would never take my husband’s name when I got married. I am sure they didn’t appreciate that. And then I did take his name.
Is that Cotti?
Yeah, but I kept Lyon too.
Would you describe your interest in political science?
I loved political science while I was a student. I’ve always loved history and government. Funny enough, as political as my mom was—and even my dad, who did a lot of government relations stuff as an accountant—I am the only one of the five children who has gone this route.
Growing up, I always said I wanted to be a teacher but I never knew at what level. I had a professor who really pushed me to get a master’s and then a PhD and go to an out-of-state school. I was getting engaged at the time and I told him that. He could have told me, “Oh well, focus on that instead,” but he didn’t. He told me to get my master’s in Public Policy at Brigham Young University so I could do both.
Moving on in graduate school with a spouse takes a lot of career coordination. We’ve always swapped who was in graduate school, though thankfully now no one is in graduate school! I finished up my undergraduate degree right as we got married. And then as I was working on my master’s, he was finishing up his undergrad. He actually started the MBA program right as I started working. I worked for a few years and then we moved to Washington DC for my PhD right after he finished his MBA.
I don’t think we ever sat down and had a conversation where we said, “Okay, now it’s my turn, then your turn, then my turn.” I think it was just always really well understood that we just had to work together on it, and someone will always be the trailing spouse. Sometimes it’s been him; sometimes it’s been me. We have actually swapped out who was the breadwinner in our marriage too, so there is balance there as well.
When I applied for my PhD, I didn’t choose any small towns, so that he could have a solid job market. We were very strategic in choosing cities where he could get a job easily, and even choosing cities in which we knew we had connections. I was taking my last class for my doctoral program in the early stages of my pregnancy. On the last day I went to the professor and said, “I have to apologize for my lack of enthusiasm or participation, because I mostly just sit in class and try not to throw up.” He was really nice about it. I had my baby right after I defended my prospectus and my classes were all done. So it actually worked out really well. I was able to be a work-at-home mom and finish the dissertation, and my husband was able to start his insurance business.
Tell me about your position at the Hinckley Institute here at the University of Utah?
It’s sort of three things. Part of it is the state internship program that I administer. We have three programs. We have state, DC, and global; I do state. A big chunk of my job is a research component. So right now we have three Pew projects, and then I’m also writing a political history/biography of Dan Jones. And part of my job is teaching, so I teach in the Public Policy Program.
How old are your kids now?
They’re five and two. I work four days a week. I do a lot at night once they’re asleep, and that’s just sort of how I am managing it. I feel like I am really passionate about my work and it doesn’t feel like too much. I don’t know why, but it doesn’t.
Let’s talk about the landscape of political involvement in Utah. Tell me your impressions of the heath of the political landscape in Utah as you see it from this job.
I am concerned about the health of the political landscape in Utah. I would love to see us have more balance in this state between the parties and between male and female representations. One of my passions is women in politics and voter turnout. But unfortunately, we aren’t doing great on voter turnout either. When it comes to women in politics, everyone is really excited that we have our first black Republican woman elected to Congress, and that she is coming from Utah. But we rank 46th in the number of female representatives in federal government. We lost three women in the House this election, but we gained one in the Senate. So we just are going to be ranked worse now, because we have a net loss of two. That is really concerning to me.
Why do you think that is?
A huge part of it is LDS culture and a huge part of it is the caucus convention system. If you look at the makeup of the delegates at the Republican convention, 75% of them are men. I think that has a huge impact on who is selected. I also think a big part is LDS culture. I myself have heard people say that they think men are better leaders and they wouldn’t trust a woman’s judgment when it came to serious issues like the economy or war. So I think that colors how people vote. That doesn’t say much for our voters.
And why is it important to you to have that female representation in all of those bodies?
Well, I could be wonky and talk about the research and show how it’s important to have that female voice. I mean, the research shows that groups make different decisions when women are involved. If we were in Relief Society and we were talking about what characteristics women have, we would talk about empathy, a focus on children, etc. In speaking with female legislators, I know that they have tried to push for education and other things and have had a terrible time getting their male counterparts to jump on board with the legislation. It’s often because those men are worried about their male delegates who don’t care about education as much. So I think without women there is a loss on some of those really important issues and a loss of that perspective. I think you find that more with our female politicians, and I think that needs to be in the room.
Are there things that you think could be beneficial to solving some of these problems?
I think a stronger female voice is crucial. I used to teach in the Young Women and now I am in the older teenager Sunday School. I love the new lessons. I love how it is an open curriculum. But the talks and videos that are listed are usually are of or from men. So I usually have to go searching for a talk or quote by a woman. In my opinion, we are going to have to have some mixture of grassroots efforts and having women be more willing to speak up. And then at the highest level, I hope we will continue to see great changes like the mission age change and the emphasis on women’s voices being included in ward council.
What are you doing personally to balance the pressures that you feel being a working mother here in Utah with your own personal conviction that you’re doing the right thing?
I think my sister put it best when she said, “You have to identify what is nonsense to you.” A horrifying anecdote about my sister is that when she started as a BYU freshman when she was 17, she had a bishop tell her that she didn’t need to worry about finding a major because her focus needed to be finding a husband. But that didn’t affect her. She told me this a couple of weeks ago, but she said, “I knew what was my truth and that was our home.”
We also grew up with a really strong aunt, as well as mother. She didn’t get married until she was 40, and so she had to focus on her career and has had an amazing career. I grew up idolizing her because she traveled the world and had this cool job where she was an interior decorator. She got to work on the historical renovation of the governor’s mansion and I remember her going on cool trips like to Belgium to find lace for the curtains. So like my sister, I have to focus on that truth that is mine, and those relationships with my sisters, my friends, my aunt, and my mother.
So what closing words would you give to those Young Women you teach?
Well, I’m about to teach a lesson about being financially self-sufficient. My husband taught it last year and he focused on budgeting. My sister-in-law in the Bay Area is the Young Women president there and she just did a really cool activity with the girls. She had them each find someone who worked for a living and then someone who works because of a personal passion. I feel like a big part of what I want for my girls is to be able to visualize what they want to do. So I want them to identify people in their lives—whether it be women or men—who have made specific professional choices. And then we will talk about what choices those people made. We are in a blue-collar ward, so it will be interesting to see what kind of examples they bring. I just want them to know that there are many options and so many of them are valid. They should choose things that make them happy and that are smart. If they want to be stay-at-home moms, please be stay at home moms but please get your bachelor’s degree in the process.
I recently had a conversation about work and life choices with a friend where she was really emotional about her own path. She got a Master’s degree in the social sciences because she thought it would be good for her family. She has three kids now and volunteers full-time, even though she hasn’t done paid work since her oldest was born. She was saying to me on the phone, “I do exactly according to the messages I have received. You stay at home, you volunteer your little heart out, you put your heart into your calling.” With her youngest in kindergarten, she actually has gone back to work extremely part-time, doing some home visits. But she is still trying to figure out her future and figure out if it’s okay for her to still try to make a career. I told her, “You’ve taken a decade off and that’s how much time my mom took off and how much time a lot of people take off. It will work out.” I think it would be great for her to go back to work, since life is so long. She could have three more decades of a career. I think that’s the conversation.
Even at 40 it feels too late, but retirement age is not until you’re 65 or 70. It’s not too late. It’s frustrating that you have to start over, but I run this internship program here at the U of U and I have 60-year-old interns. My friend was the student body president and the star athlete and star student. But in our culture, being ambitious as young women is totally different than being an ambitious woman. She got the message: Do everything you can and be the president of your sorority, but there comes a time in our lives when we are then questioned for our ambitions. I think she realizes now that those messages are conflicted.
In the end, we each have to figure out where our truth is. It may sound like a trite cliché, but it is of paramount importance. It helps us weed out the nonsense. I know I have value within my home and community, sadly I don’t always feel that within my home ward. But I know what I feel is true. I know what I love about the gospel, and my knowledge, leadership and other attributes are valued within that space. I know its okay to be smart and ambitious when we are young and also as we mature and enter our careers. I have an amazing legacy of strong women in my family, my goal is to live up to the high standards they set and hopefully bring other women along with me.
At A Glance
Morgan Lyon Cotti
Location: Bountiful, UT
Marital status: Married
Children: Two children ages 5 and 2
Occupation: State Program Manager at the Hinckley Institute of Politics
Schools Attended: University of Utah, Brigham Young University, George Washington University
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: Know This, That Every Soul is Free
On The Web: “Feminist Mormon Housewives: Faith of my Mothers”
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Photos used with permission.
At A Glance