Peggy Flanagan: Feminist Mom-in-Chief

Photo by Sarah Whiting

To get to the office of Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, a wide-eyed writer must first pass through the official reception room of the state capitol — an impressively imposing space adorned with historic oil paintings, every inch gilded and carved for maximum splendor. While Flanagan is indeed impressive, she is not imposing; instead she greets surprised tour members with a friendly handshake and a warm introduction: “Welcome to your House,” she says.

In her office down the hall, Flanagan points to a no-less- impressive piece of art. “The first thing I hung in here,” she says. It is a sketch by her six-year-old daughter Siobhan.

The day Lt. Gov. Flanagan and I met, Siobhan was at home, felled by a virus. Her presence colored our conversation as surely as if she had been in the room with a box of Crayolas. Anyone watching Inauguration Day in January would have seen the round-cheeked girl standing by Flanagan’s side during her swearing-in, then crawling into Governor Tim Walz’s lap for a cuddle while Flanagan delivered a speech.

“If we can’t create space for our kids in places around the Capitol,” Flanagan says, “we’re not doing it right.”

Flanagan says many women candidates in 2018 privately thanked her for bringing Siobhan on the campaign trail. “It showed that moms can do this work,” she conveys. “I said ‘You are welcome, [but] it is also out of necessity. I am a mom who has to bring her kid!’ [Siobhan] has grown up going to meetings and rallies and committee hearings. Sometimes she has her headphones on, and is coloring with some fruit snacks, and that’s just the way it is.”

Badass and Intersectional Leadership

Flanagan credits the women who raised her for instilling the virtues of hard work and community service that she is passing on to her daughter. When asked if she’s a feminist, Flanagan answers without hesitation: “Absolutely. Of course.” She adds, “I come from a line of really incredible, strong, independent women. My mom was a single mom, my grandma was a single mom of four girls at a time when that didn’t happen a lot. My mom and her sisters are just badass women who are leaders. That’s how I grew up, and that’s what I know.

“In some ways, my normal was seeing women as leaders — jobs with the county in public service, nonprofit leadership. I saw women who were working and leading.”

Flanagan admits that Siobhan also lives in a milieu that takes powerful women for granted. Her mother’s peers are state representatives, nonprofit leaders, and activists. They include the first two Native women elected to Congress, Reps. Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland, who waved gleefully at Flanagan during the State of the Union address. “[Representation] matters,” she says. “It matters for us to have voices that represent the community. That’s how we’re going to get better results.

“If we are going to have Minnesota feminisms, it means that we work together across lines of difference and allow for intersectionality to exist,” Flanagan continues. “For communities of color, and indigenous communities, we are still in that struggle with white feminists — to create space for women of color and indigenous women to be able to own and tell their own narrative.”

As an example, Flanagan mentioned that she and the governor met with members of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force. “The governor’s job was just to listen,” she says. “My job was to help facilitate the conversation a bit, but we want to hear directly from the people who are impacted.”

Flanagan emphasizes that the administration trusts that “most of the solutions to issues and challenges we face come directly from the [affected] community. There are already people who are doing this work, in particular women leaders. So let’s listen to them.”

The Lens of a Child Advocate

Flanagan, of course, has life experience of her own that she brings to her job. In addition to being a member of the White Earth Ojibwe tribe, and a former state legislator, “I’m a former executive director of Children’s Defense Fund, I am a mom, and a recovering school board member,” she laughs. “That is the lens through which I see my world: primarily as a child advocate.”

Flanagan knows “that children and families don’t come in pieces, so [the administration’s] approach to the budget and policy is looking at the whole child and the whole family.” They understand, for example, what it is like for parents who are unable to leave work to care for a child with a virus, or who lack the health coverage to treat it.

If Flanagan attributes her historic success in Minnesota politics to her foremothers’ leadership, does she think Siobhan might someday have political aspirations? Actually, Flanagan says, her daughter’s six-year-old heart currently is set on being a police officer, who she sees “as community helpers.”

In fact, Siobhan was unimpressed by Mom’s new position, reminding her that “you’re gonna work in the same building, you just have a different job.”

Flanagan explained to her that “there hasn’t been a Native woman in this office before.”

“Oh.” Siobhan said, interested. “Why didn’t you just say so?”