Then and Now: Women in Politics

We do not just want to be women elected and sitting in seats, being disregarded and not listened to.

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Cathie Hartnett is now working
toward democracy in Florida.

After being elected in 1976 to the Saint Paul Board of Education in her twenties, Cathie Hartnett moved to Washington D.C. and raised money for congressional and senatorial candidates. Having learned political organizing for women in the Ramsey County Women’s Political Caucus, she volunteered for the National Women’s Political Caucus and was the delegate organizer for the President’s Advisory Committee for Women, established by then-President Jimmy Carter. “In those days, most of us were volunteers. There was no money for marches and programs.”

In 1994, Minnesotans Nina Rothchild, Carol Flynn, and Barbara Stuler formed the Minnesota Million to raise funds to put the first Minnesota woman in the U.S. Senate. Hartnett returned to the area and helped raise $300,000 in pledges. Anne Wynia won the DFL endorsement with 80 percent of the vote. Ramsey County Attorney Tom Foley broke ranks with his party after losing the endorsement and challenged her in a primary election. “I don’t buy this whole business that this seat should go to a woman this time,” Foley told the media. “I’m not buying into gender politics.”

Although Wynia was not elected senator that year, she did win against five male candidates in the Democratic primary, including Foley. (Republican Rod Grams won the seat with 49 percent of the vote.) It would take until 2006 for Minnesota to elect its first woman to the U.S. Senate.

In 1994, Hartnett said: “You can’t change the balance of power without white men giving up their seats. We can’t wait until every white male in power is ready to leave. It’s painful. This is a hard time.”

Minnesota Women’s Press caught up with Hartnett, who is now living in Florida, to ask for her insights about how time has and has not stood still for women in politics. As a board member of the Ms. Foundation, and a former Twin Cities political talk radio show host, Hartnett says it is depressing how much time it takes for political leadership to change. Yet she sees a strength in the newest generation of feminist political leaders.

“Young politically active women today have incredible challenges to keep access to reproductive health, liveable wage jobs, and access to affordable day care,” she says, adding that they seem up to the challenges. “There is a new generation of women today who know the work is important and valuable and should be invested in. That has tremendous power.”

A few years ago, when young women organized the Women’s March in response to Trump’s election, she says, they landed funding, including $1 million from Oprah. They were paid for their work, including the travel. They did not have to share hotel rooms with 10 other women, as Hartnett recalls doing in her early political days.

She sees cultural changes in today’s feminists. “The young women I meet now are not interested in moving in with their boyfriends. They want their own place. In my generation, we were feminists but still fell into the pattern of not running our own lives,” Hartnett says.

Hartnett characterizes politics as more brutal today, with polarization taking the place of compromise.

“We still need more women from all races and cultures to run and win elective office at all levels to assure that our democracy serves all of us and not the few,” she adds.

One thing that does not appear to be substantially different, Hartnett says, is how to raise funds for women candidates.

Joan Growe was secretary of state for nearly 25 years and was instrumental in developing Minnesota’s high voter turnout. When Growe challenged Republican U.S. Senator Rudy Boschwitz in 1984, Hartnett worked with women around the state to create circles of women who committed to each find 10 women; then those 10 women committed to find 10 more women, all pledging funds.

When men raise money, Harnett says, they more typically bring others into the room who want to be seen leading the way with big checks. “Women didn’t travel in those circles,” Harnett says, “so for both large and small donations we were successful in a collective strategy. “

She is heartened to see greater diversity in Minnesota’s local politicians, but notes that other professions have progressed further. “There are more women doctors, lawyers, and business owners than when I was a girl growing up in Saint Paul,” she says. Yet nearly all of Minnesota’s highest-paid CEOs are white men — there are “few women, few people of color, few immigrants. Somehow we still aren’t breaking through a number of glass ceilings.”

As of June 2021, for example, there are five women and one male person of color in the Top 50 list of highest-paid CEOs in Minnesota.

It is not only about economic power, however. “So many Minnesota women were my mentors, teaching me ways to combine passion and compassion, joy and activism, and work-life balance,” Hartnett says.


Running for Office

Mindy Greiling echoes the values she received from mentors. She says she never would have served for two decades as a House legislator representing Roseville had she not been persistently recruited to run.

“Women need more encouragement [to run],” Greiling says, noting her surprise that this tendency remains the same today. “We are so conscientious that we think we need to know every issue backwards and forwards, and how to run a campaign, and that we should wait until we get to that point.”

Mindy Greiling served in the Minnesota House from 1992 until her retirement in 2013.

When she was a school board member from Roseville, Greiling told Minnesota Women’s Press in 1990 that it was her participation in the League of Women Voters that was the impetus for her campaign. “If you spend enough time lobbying, trying to convince other people to vote the way you would like them to, you run for office so you can have the vote instead.”

At the time, she articulated a general difference of approach between the genders. She indicated that women tend to be more interested in what goes on in the classroom — the human interaction. “Lots of times, men are thinking of themselves as trustees. Is the budget balanced? Do we have good facilities?”

Today, Greiling says, she is “feeling really positive about women and their prospects. When I was running the first time it was 1992 — ‘the year of the woman.’ Everyone was really excited when they would see me at the door [campaigning] after those horrible Clarence Thomas hearings. We never had a year like that again [for women candidates] until current times. I think we have even higher ambitions. We do not just want to be women elected and sitting in seats, being disregarded and not listened to. The fact that we have [minority leader of the Minnesota Senate] Susan Kent and [Speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives] Melissa Hortman speaks volumes.

“Women like me, who came up through the League of Women Voters and Girl Scouts and PTA, we are very into delegating and sharing power. I think that is the best of women leadership.” Recognizing that “more heads are better than one” is a strength, she says. “You do your best work if you have expertise from others.”

When Greiling chaired the Education Finance Committee, she turned to colleague Kathy Brynaert from Mankato as the education policy expert on testing and standards. “When that topic came up, if we got into the weeds we could call on her to be the one to have studied that and know exactly what was going on. That is definitely a style I learned in the women’s community.”


Special to Minnesota Women’s Press community: Because we tend to prioritize first-person narratives, whenever possible we offer video interviews with sources to expand on what we were able to include in the story. The following ten-minute clip comes from a half-hour interview.