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Growing number of women of all backgrounds take to politics

From the first all-female city council to the growing representation of women in the state legislature and Congress, female Minnesota officials reflect on what it means to be a woman in politics.
Image by Leigh Finke (courtesy)
The number of women in the Minnesota government has increased greatly in the 100 years since women first were elected to the Minnesota Legislature.

The first all-female city council, growing numbers of women in government and greater representation in both local and state government are making headlines in Minnesota with women in politics hoping to inspire future leaders.

In Minnesota, women were first elected to the legislature in 1922. Currently, 38% of the legislature is made up of women, with nearly half of those women being women of color and 15% in the LGBTQ community. 

Rep. Ilhan Omar (DFL), former state Senate majority leader Kari Dziedzic (DFL) and Lt. Governor Peggy Flannagan (DFL) are among the few female voices representing students at the University of Minnesota.

Office on the Economic Status of Women

The Office on the Economic Status of Women was established in 1976 to study and report on economic issues facing women to the legislature.

Heather J. Heyer, director of the office, tracks the legislative bills relating to families, women, gender identity, economic development and workforce development for communities of color. 

Heyer said the office was instrumental in passing landmark legislation in Minnesota, including the state and local government Pay Equity Act in 1982 and 1984.

“That’s groundbreaking because we know part of the gender pay gap that exists is due to occupational segregation and female-dominated fields are paid less than male-dominated fields,” Heyer said. “That was really instrumental in leveling that stage in that piece for the state of Minnesota.”

Heyer said the increase of women in government is approaching statewide demographics, especially in the representation of Indigenous women. 

“When young people see people like them in office, that makes a difference for them in what they think they’re capable of doing,” Heyer said. “It’s really important because the demographics in Minnesota are changing and we need to make sure we have representation for everybody and everybody feels like they have someone they can go to.”

Councilmember Nelsie Yang

Councilmember Nelsie Yang has represented Ward 6 in the St. Paul City Council since January 2020. She is the youngest and first Hmong American to be elected as a council member in St. Paul history.

Yang said she started politically organizing in 2015 because she wanted change for the injustice her family experienced. 

“Being the daughter of refugees, I’ve seen my parents work so hard their entire lives but never reaping the benefits that they truly deserve,” Yang said. “That is something that was really striking and it didn’t feel good and I know that it hurts them even more.”

Poverty wages and economic instability contributed to their family home getting foreclosed two days before her high school commencement, Yang said. Seeing how those experiences were common among her neighbors kickstarted her passion to get politically involved, according to Yang.

“We’re a part of a larger system where if we don’t fight to make it work for us, we will continue to get hurt and marginalized and disenfranchised,” Yang said.

In her ward, Yang said she is working to build a thousand new housing units and bring in a thousand living-wage low-barrier jobs for the diverse community she represents.

Yang added she wants St. Paul to be the nation’s first carbon-neutral site by taking advantage of green energy.

St. Paul is the first large U.S. city with an entirely female city council. All seven members are under 40, and six of the seven are women of color. 

“Having an all-women St. Paul City Council didn’t happen by itself,” Yang said. “It happened because of the power of people coming together and organizing through democracy to make that possible.”

Yang said the council is proof of what is possible for women everywhere.

“Continuing to elect leaders who are champions of working-class people, of labor, of folks who are from marginalized communities and advancing equity, it has to absolutely be the most important thing ever,” Yang said.

In the legislature

Rep. Mary Frances Clardy said her journey to the legislature started when her daughter switched from a Montessori school to a public school. 

Clardy said she got a letter from her daughter’s school, expecting it to reference her academic skills. Instead, she was asked to only use white beads in her daughter’s hair. 

“After hearing that and knowing my daughter had all the support, all the social network and social support that she needed, it just was a call to action,” Clardy said.

Following that letter, Clardy said she moved from a career in housing to education, where she taught for 28 years before working on the school board for three years. After redistricting, a seat in the legislature opened up and she felt ready to take on the position.

Having strong women in the government serves to inspire future generations of women, Clardy said. 

“I’ve become the woman that I am because of my mother and because of her mother,” Clardy said. “I want to be that type of mentor and advocate for many black and brown girls that need that.”

Rep. Leigh Finke (DFL-St. Paul) said she never planned to run for office until an opportunity arose following a redistricting in her neighborhood.

When working at the American Civil Liberties Union in 2021, Finke said she organized around the idea that there should be someone transgender in the statehouse.

“That’s not the first time I wanted that, but we were starting to see all the negative stuff that was happening around the country really pick up and we were starting to see bills introduced in Minnesota,” Finke said. “It just made me nervous.”

Finke is the first openly transgender person elected to the Minnesota Legislature.

Finke said there is a lot of work to do to make the lives of Minnesotans better, and she hopes to continue to be a part of that.

“I care a great deal about continuing to work on human rights issues at large, incarcerated rights, prison justice and reform, and I want to see some of those things through,” Finke said. “I think that we’re building toward being able to make some really big change in this state.”

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  • Mohamed Abdi
    Mar 31, 2024 at 11:13 am

    Out of all the actual women in Minnesota politics you deem to insult them by putting a man on the story?