Jeri Rasmussen was among what feminist historians now call the second wave — that determined group of activists who fought for women’s rights in the 1970s and beyond.
An outspoken, devout Methodist homemaker from Shoreview, she was fired from her job at Northwest Orient Airlines in the 1960s because she was pregnant. What followed was a fierce political life that made her one of Minnesota’s leading defenders of reproductive rights.
“I don’t think women in the state know how much they owe to Jeri Rasmussen,” said Yvette Oldendorf, a lifelong friend and fellow activist. “She really, really made a difference.”
Rasmussen died July 13. She was 84.
She was born Jereen Wharton in 1934 and grew up in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood. She attended Hamline University, but like most women in that day, she dropped out when she got married. Her husband, Bruce Rasmussen, was a schoolteacher and painter.
She turned to politics in the mid-1960s, after she lost her job, and ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature in 1970, a time when there was only one elected woman at the State Capitol. Both experiences helped propel her to fight for change on behalf of women, said friends and her daughter.
“She told stories about not being taken seriously” during that campaign, said Oldendorf. “How she had to be interviewed for endorsement by all men, talking about issues that they didn’t care about or hadn’t even heard of.”
In the early 1970s, Rasmussen was one of six women who formed the Feminist Caucus in the Democratic Farmer Labor Party, a group that at the time was considered almost radical for its uncompromising stance on women’s issues.
“We realized we had to be the bad girls in the DFL,” said Mary Pattock, also one of the founders and a longtime friend of Rasmussen. “We were only going to support candidates that would support our principles. This was kind of a risky deal back then.”
Rasmussen was instrumental in persuading then-Gov. Rudy Perpich to appoint the first woman, Rosalie Wahl, to the state Supreme Court.
Her daughter, Sarah Sampson, remembers that she and her brother could run freely around the Capitol while their mother tended to politics.
“She was a powerhouse when she needed to be in the political arena,” Sampson said, adding: “My mom and dad always preached being nice to everyone. And she would add a caveat — because you never know when you can change a vote.”
In 1979, Rasmussen became the first public affairs director for Planned Parenthood in Minnesota, a job she held until 1985, and one that reflected her view that abortion was a fundamental right. “She said, ‘You don’t have sovereignty over your own life until you have the right to control your body,’ ” said Oldendorf.
Later, when she ran the Midwest Health Center for Women, another clinic that provided reproductive health care and abortions, she became the target of abortion opponents. Her home was picketed, rocks were thrown through her window, and she was followed.
“She said, ‘I don’t understand why this country isn’t calling this domestic terrorism,’ ” Oldendorf said.
Oldendorf said Rasmussen would take great pride in the current wave of feminism sweeping politics and the workplace today.
“Jeri would have fit right in,” Oldendorf said. “ ‘ ... And She Persisted.’ That would be Jeri.”
In addition to Sampson, Rasmussen is survived by her son Matthew Rasmussen and five grandchildren. Services have been held.