The Legacy of Feminist Politics

“The feeling persists that ‘a woman can’t win out here.’”

Adapted from our book “35 Years of Minnesota Women

Minnesota Women’s Press Vol. 7, No 16 Nov. 6-19 1991

Politics & Policy content is underwritten by the League of Women Voters of Minnesota, celebrating 102 years of empowering voters and defending democracy.

In 1986, 14 percent of legislators in Minnesota were women; 25 women were serving in the U.S. Congress. After legislators decided sexual harassment allegations were not enough to dismiss Clarence Thomas as a candidate for U.S. Supreme Court justice in 1991 — following decades of similar indignations — women started running for political office in record numbers. The testimony of Anita Hill galvanized an effort to reach closer to a 50/50 gender ratio in political leadership.

When Donald Trump defeated Hilary Clinton for president in 2016 and Brett Kavanaugh was appointed Supreme Court justice in 2018 despite sexual assault allegations, there also was a resurgence of women running for office.

Today, nearly 36 percent of Minnesota’s legislators are women, 31 percent of the country’s state legislators in general are women, and 26 percent of people serving in Congress (143 people) are women.

Progress, but still not representative of the population.

The 1980s Goal

Diane DuBay reported in the pages of Minnesota Women’s Press in June 1986 that an increasing number of candidates were seeking endorsement by women’s political caucuses. For example, 35 candidates sought endorsement from the bipartisan Hennepin County Women’s Political Caucus — 10 more than in the previous election.

The caucus was firm about looking for candidates who supported four central issues. Those issues look remarkably similar today (although racial justice is missing): Roe v. Wade, the Equal Rights Amendment, government-funded day care, and comparable worth. “There is no point in coming in for endorsement if you don’t support those issues,” caucus president Judy Corrao told candidates. “The system isn’t going to work for anyone unless it includes these cornerstones.” After 29 of 51 women candidates were elected to the Minnesota state legislature that year, Judy Corrao, co- founder of the Minnesota Women’s Political Caucus, wrote an essay titled “Women Will Help Set New Agenda.” She quoted Barbara Mikulski, newly elected U.S. senator from Maryland, who stated after her resounding victory:

“Of course you can run as a feminist. Feminist issues are the farmers, the unemployed, the economy, the environment. Feminist issues are family issues.”

It was reported in August 1988 that nearly all of the women running for office in Minnesota were based in the Twin Cities. Only eight women legislative candidates from outside Hennepin and Ramsey counties were running. “It’s a chilly atmosphere” in Greater Minnesota, said Shirley Nelson. “The feeling persists that ‘a woman can’t win out here.’”

Nelson was leading the Saint Paul-based Women Candidate Development Coalition — a role she would fill for more than 30 years — to not simply elect people who will perpetuate what exists now, but “to elect those who will transform the system.”

Why Women?

In May 1990, Minnesota Women’s Press published an article about how school board entry points were leading more women further into political pursuits, such as running for state legislator — and why.

Rep. Katy Olson was a state representative from Sherburn County who had previously served 10 years on a school board. She described a frustration with male leadership. “One of my biggest disappointments was that it seemed we spent three-quarters of the meetings talking about dollars and very little time talking about improved curriculum,” she said.

When she was on the school board, Olson said, each member would receive a packet containing information about agenda items for the next meeting. “The other woman board member and I always studied the packets very carefully. We were very interested in the students’ and staff ’s positions and worked harder at finding that out by visiting with them. Often the men didn’t open their packets until the meeting.”

Carolyn Rodriquez, a former state representative from Apple Valley, said in a 1994 article titled “Changing the Face of Politics”: “Women are more interested in solving problems. If we are fortunate enough to elect women, we’ll get more done. Men want to gain points whether it’s a good solution or not.”