More than 150 West St. Paul residents, many carrying boxes of maxi pads and tampons to drive home the point, flooded a City Council meeting Monday night to protest what they say is ongoing sexism by several male council members.
Mayor Jenny Halverson was among nearly 20 women who spoke for nearly two hours outlining what they said was a pattern of misogyny at City Hall.
“This is not political. This is about sexism,” Halverson said at the top of the meeting. “It is about the ugliness that permeates the entire environment.”
Halverson, elected the city’s first female mayor in 2016, said her experiences as mayor and on the council have extended to outright harassment. In her six years in city government, she said, other city officials have put words in her mouth, commented on her appearance and taken credit for her ideas.
People have driven past her house or followed her, Halverson said, among other intimidation tactics. The incident that ignited the current controversy was just the tip of the iceberg, she said.
It began at the April 23 City Council meeting, when the council rejected one of three Planning Commission candidates Halverson had appointed. All three were women.
Council Member Jay Bellows said he objected to Samantha Green’s appointment when a current commission member — a man — was seeking reappointment. He suggested that gender had influenced Halverson’s choices.
The mayor said she had picked the appointees because they were qualified, and noted that Bellows had championed the mayor’s right to appoint commission members three years ago when the mayor was a man.
The next morning, Halverson and Green found boxes of Kleenex and maxi pads on their doorsteps — an apparent dig at their gender and reference to the stereotype that women are overemotional, especially at certain times in their menstrual cycles.
In solidarity with the two women, residents vowed to bring tampons and maxi pads to Monday night’s meeting.
As the feminine products piled up, a stream of women voiced support for Halverson and said they didn’t feel represented by the council. They called it an “old boys club” and cited negative experiences with current members, and they mentioned other candidates who were turned down for committee openings.
Deb Swenson said that she lives in a local community of senior citizens, most of them women, and suggested that they will vote out the allegedly sexist council members.
“This is just so wrong,” Swenson said. “You have this articulate woman here [Halverson] and you’re bullying her. Stop it!”
Some said they would attend every remaining city meeting in Halverson’s term (which ends later this year) to support her. Others called for the resignation of Bellows or other council members.
Wendy Berry, a West St. Paul resident, said she plans to run for City Council. “We are ready for change,” she said. “We will not be intimidated.”
Council members responded to the drama in the council chambers in various ways. Council Member Dick Vitelli said he was proud to serve under Halverson’s leadership, while Bob Pace ignored the uproar and talked instead about an upcoming event.
Repeating his previous comments, Bellows condemned the harassment of Halverson and Green and denied that sexism had influenced his April 23 vote. He said the night had been filled with guilt by association, along with some “statements that just didn’t have any basis in fact.”
“I’ve been accused of a lot of things tonight,” Bellows said. “The fact of the matter is, people don’t know a hell of a lot about me or my background.”
The tampons and maxi pads brought to the meeting were to be donated to needy women.