Even though Barbara Battiste is preparing to turn out the lights for the last time Friday, she doesn’t want me to report that the Legislature’s Office on the Economic Status of Women — for which she is the sole staffer — is closing.
“Say it’s going dormant,” Battiste pleaded.
That is a more hopeful term, I suppose. And it could turn out to be more accurate. The office will continue to exist in state statute, by the grace of the same Republican-controlled 2017 Legislature that eliminated its $120,000 annual operating budget. A future Legislature could cough up the money to bring it back to fruitful life.
But if it does — and unless trends in feminist politics change — it’s a good bet that future Legislature will be in DFL hands.
It would pain my late friend Kathleen Ridder to read that last sentence. Ridder, who died in April, was the Republican co-founder of Womenwinning, the feminist organization formerly known as the Minnesota Women’s Campaign Fund. In 1982 she enlisted more than a dozen like-minded Republican women to contribute $1,000 apiece to launch a political fund that backed female candidates in both parties who favored reproductive rights. Nearly as many DFL women did the same, recruited by future Lt. Gov. Marlene Johnson.
Feminism wasn’t a partisan “ism” then.
The extent to which it is now was on display at the 35th annual Womenwinning luncheon on June 16 in Minneapolis. As always, the event began with a parade of past and present elected officials who won office with the organization’s backing. I spotted one former GOP mayor and one former GOP legislator in the procession. The rest of the several dozen women who amassed at the front of the room were DFLers.
The group’s partisan tilt wasn’t lost on the luncheon’s featured speaker. Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine had come to Minnesota as proof that her political species is not extinct.
“I’m not only a pro-choice Republican. I’m a pro-choice Catholic Republican. Believe me, that’s not easy,” the four-term senator said to appreciative laughter.
Those categories should not be understood as mutually exclusive, Collins said. The idea that women are full citizens free to make their own choices is basic to both feminist and Republican thought.
“Republicans should be at the forefront of the fight for reproductive rights,” said the GOP senator most likely to oppose defunding Planned Parenthood during this week’s Senate health care debate. “I say to my Republican colleagues: If we are truly the party of limited government, we should want government out of the personal lives of our citizens.”
To that philosophical point, Collins added a realpolitik one: “Reproductive rights are too important an issue to be at the mercy of changing political tides.” Feminists need a base of support in both major U.S. parties. The liberty of half of the population is not secure if only one party is its champion, she said.
That brings me back to the humble one-woman economic research shop in the basement of the State Office Building.
As its name implies, the Office on the Economic Status of Women was never about reproductive rights. Created as a research council just three years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision, its founders were already wary of the divisive power of the abortion issue. First as a council, then a commission led by legislators, then an office, it opted to focus on matters like pay equity for women in government employment — work that produced impressive results and continues to attract notice around the country.
But avoiding abortion hasn’t provided political protection.
The office went dark once before, when Republicans controlled the Legislature in 2011-12 and the state budget was deep in red ink. A DFL-controlled Legislature brought it back in 2014. Given the partisan tit-for-tat that drives so much in today’s Legislature, that history alone made the office vulnerable with this year’s return to GOP control.
There’s more: Many of today’s Republicans consider the office’s effort to open economic doors to women a mission that has been accomplished. They argue that a government office that points out gender disparities in, say, business ownership isn’t helpful to today’s female strivers. It serves to cast women as a needy class deserving special help. That, they would say, is at best a dated idea.
I wonder whether Minnesota’s female business owners would agree. My guess is that they would want someone to tell legislators that their enterprises’ annual average revenue in 2015 was $156,007, compared with $749,086 for the state’s male-owned businesses. They might want to receive a periodic newsletter containing such information. They might want alerts when bills that might affect them arise during sessions. They might want to attend occasional regional meetings to meet similarly situated women and discuss shared concerns — things like child care, transportation and student debt.
That’s some of what Battiste has done during her three-plus years in the office. Seeing that work end, she says, is “maddening.”
But she’s cool — as am I — to a suggestion from some of the office’s allies. She’s not keen to ask DFL Gov. Mark Dayton to simply move the office into the executive branch. That would only underscore the perception that feminism is the peculiar preoccupation of just one party. It would make the office vulnerable again the next time that office has a Republican occupant.
Here’s an alternative next step: People who value this office’s work could call on the current legislative majorities to live up to the language in the just-enacted bill that cut the office’s funding. It says that the staff at the Legislative Coordinating Commission, an umbrella entity for a number of legislative operations, “may additionally be used … to support the work of the Economic Status of Women Advisory Committee.”
There is no such advisory committee today. But there was one in the past. There could be again. Make that, there should be. It should be a bipartisan panel of both legislators and nonlegislators. It should take up the task of recommending a future somewhere within government for efforts to both call sustained attention to the economic lot of women and advocate for its improvement.
If that panel also thinks about how to give feminism a bipartisan reputation in Minnesota once again, so much the better.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.