Watching Hillary Clinton’s victory week in Philadelphia, many of us have full hearts. Many of us oldsters also know the truth behind the spectacle: This triumph was made possible by recent generations of active women who contributed courage and smarts to stimulate public discussion and change the role of women in politics.
And nowhere was there greater women’s political activity in the past four decades than in Minnesota.
We need to remember and honor the women who collectively made this victory possible.
In 1970, when I was a state House candidate from the old 35th District in south-central Minneapolis, only five women statewide were endorsed by DFL conventions that year: Jeri Rasmussen was endorsed for the Senate; and Helen McMillan, two others and me were candidates for the House.
Only McMillan won (a re-election) that year, but two years later a bumper crop of talented women was elected, many of whom went on to have long and distinguished careers in the Legislature: Linda Berglin, Phyllis Kahn and Joan Growe, to name just a few. Soon after that, we had a woman lieutenant governor, Marlene Johnson.
This phenomenon of women achieving public office did not spring full-blown from the lumpen masses of Minnesota voters: something else was happening. Women were organizing.
The Women’s Political Caucus was born, nationally and in Minnesota, and within two years the DFL Feminist Caucus followed. Many women who did not run for public office generated and supported these efforts: Prof. Esther Wattenberg at the University of Minnesota, longtime activist Marilyn Gorlin from the McGovern Steering Committee, Fran Naftalin, elected to the library board — again, to name just a few.
The decade of the 1970s and the early ’80s was alive with political possibilities for women, even more so after Walter Mondale selected Geraldine Ferraro as his vice-presidential running mate.
In Minnesota, things were popping for women leaders. Geri Joseph was named U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, Arvonne Fraser took a senior position in USAID, Growe ran a vigorous campaign for the U.S. Senate and later Ann Wynia followed. Meanwhile, Sylvia Kaplan was giving events in her home to fund good candidates.
The Minnesota Women’s Campaign Fund (now called Women Winning ) was born to support the candidacies of women statewide, as Ellen Malcolm’s project, EMILY’s List, in Washington, D.C., did for the nation. Women were rising to senior positions in corporations, and they wanted to see more women in public office. Some of these women, such as Ann Barkelew, Susan Boren and Marcia Townley, did not want to run for office, but supported others who did.
The current batch of women leaders from Minnesota — including U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges — benefit from the work of past activists and also contribute to the future success of women as equal partners in the political arena.
We’ve come a long way from my campaign of 1970, when I was asked to run against the entrenched incumbent Gary Flakne with no chance of winning — where I made the coffee and then ran to the living room to help with the campaign strategy. Where I went to neighborhood “coffee parties” with the host as the only other person there! Women are now not only part of mainstream politics, but they are leading the way.
“We are all standing on the shoulders of giants,” Saul Alinsky once said, paraphrasing Isaac Newton. And as we watch Clinton take the banner for the 2016 election, we need to pause and honor the long trail of women leaders and workers in Minnesota who helped bring us to this moment.
Judith Koll Healey, of Minneapolis, was a DFL-endorsed candidate for the state House of Representatives in 1970 and a delegate to the Democratic National Convention of 1976. She is the author of several novels and the biography “Frederick Weyerhaeuser and the American West.”