The Positive Impact of Women in Politics

Thank you so much for inviting me to speak on a topic that is very near and dear to my heart. I am so happy to be here with you today. For almost all of my 63 years, politics has been an important part of my life-as a child growing up in Park Rapids and Little Falls to the years I spent in the legislature on to my quest to be Minnesota's governor and now with you today. I have never once looked back with any regret and wouldn't change anything, except maybe the outcome of the last primary election! I also want all of you to know that I am not sad or disheartened about my race for Governor. I carried important issues forward and I think we have made our mark and pressed our points. I am thrilled at the election results both in Minnesota and nationally; I believe - at least I hope - that the citizens of other nations have a received a message from the American voters. The voters have finally awakened to the grave mistakes made by this administration, mistakes that will take an enormous amount of work from which to recover. My sister is a concert pianist in Istanbul, Turkey; every week she sends me the editorials from that country's newspapers.

Their perception of our actions is quite different from the perception so many Americans have held up till this election. I am hopeful that we are once again on the path to policy that makes our state and nation more responsible to the tremendous challenges ahead.

Here we are on your 125th anniversary, knowing what effort lies ahead. But you are up for the task; you are outstanding women carrying out the vision that Marion Talbot and Ellen Richards put forward on November 28, 1881-"an organization in which women college graduates would band together to open doors of higher education to other women and find wider opportunities to use their training." We have come a long way since those early days. We have won many battles in the fight for women's equality.

Over the past 125 years, the AAUW has been active in areas besides education and helping women pursue their goals decade by decade. The success of the AAUW has translated into other areas of American life-pay equity, financial well-being, civil rights, voter registration, educational equity and relief from sexual harassment. I congratulate you on your anniversary and the excitement that comes from this celebration, for it is but a momentary respite from the exhilaration that lies ahead as we go from here to resume our responsibilities of attaining our goals in today's environment.

The first hour of your meeting was a discussion of President Jimmy Carter's new book, "Our Endangered Values". My talk is entitled "The Positive Impact of Women in Politics". I believe that women will play a huge role in restoring our endangered values, and it's quite likely why a good number of women were elected to positions of power on November 7th.

For the first time, Minnesota will be represented in the U.S. Senate by a woman-Amy Klobuchar. And Amy didn't win in a squeaker-she won with a double-digit percentage. Amy was never behind in this race, and she won in many traditionally republican areas. Her positive message of hope, equality and compassion resonated with voters across the state.

Another woman will also make history when the U.S. Congress convenes in January. Nancy Pelosi will be the first Speaker of the U.S. House. Just a few short weeks ago, Pelosi was vilified by House Republican leadership for her "liberal" positions such as raising the minimum wage and tackling tough environmental issues. I wish Nancy the best and say "You go, girl!"

Women in the Minnesota legislature will also make history when the session convenes in January. Seventy women will be serving in the House and Senate-the historic high mark of 34.8 percent of the total body.

40.3 percent of the members serving in the State Senate will now be women. In the House, women will command 32.1 percent of the membership. Again, the positive message of hope, equality and compassion on issues we care about-education, quality and affordable health care, children's issues, the environment, affordable housing, energy independence--resonated with Minnesota voters.

Look how far we've come in just 36 years. Back in 1970, less than 1% [only point 7 percent (.7)] of the legislature was comprised of women. In 1976, only three percent (3%) of the state Senate membership was female! And, for only the second time in Minnesota history, a woman will be Speaker of the Minnesota House. If you listened carefully to Margaret Anderson Kelliher's comments after the election, she is strongly committed to Minnesota's families, our children, our schools and our communities. As Minnesotans, we can and should be proud of what we've done to make our voices heard.

The voters have had an impact already. Only 8 days after the election, Governor Tim Pawlenty suggested we extend health care access to 90,000 uninsured children in Minnesota. Universal Health Care was a central theme of my campaign for Governor; I believe the whole family needs quality, affordable health care - for instance, how can we expect a sick parent to meet the demands of caring for a child. Both parent and child need the peace of mind knowing that they can be healthy and that they can do it in a preventive manner, before health care costs overtake them.

Nevertheless, I'm hopeful that we will take this small first step. Even though the governor has back-tracked somewhat from his original statement, I don't think he would be likely to veto a bill that came to his desk. I'll reiterate what I said to the newspaper reporter: "Minnesota is the state to move forward with universal health coverage. And this coming year will be the year to do it!" Minnesota's legislature will again challenge the status quo and we will once again be on the road to having progressive values front and center.

Obviously, women's involvement in politics didn't happen over night. We have to go back to the first Woman's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y in 1848 that produced the "Declaration of Sentiments" stressing the need to extend suffrage to American women. It was not an easy fight. It took until the summer of 1920 for enough states to ratify the 19th Amendment that gave women full rights to vote in the United States. (A quick note -Minnesota had granted women the right to vote in March, 1919, but only in presidential elections.) I always remember that my mother was 10 years old when women got the vote. My parents, who were wonderful Republicans in the Elmer L. Andersen mode, always encouraged me to be politically active. You can imagine their surprise when I became a Democrat when I was a junior in High School. My mother, trying to think of something worse than my becoming Democrat, said to my father as we sat at the dinner table, "Well, Everett, at least she's not an ax murderer!" (These were the Lizzie Borden days, so the comment was fitting with the times).

An article in the June 5, 1919 edition of the New York Times put it this way:
"Today's victory for suffrage ends a fight that really dates from the American Revolution. Women voted under several of the Colonial Governments. During the Revolution women demanded to be included in the Government. Abigail Adams wrote her husband, John Adams, "If women are not represented in this new republic there will be another revolution"."

In retrospect, Abigail Adams was a visionary. Little did she know it would be the next century before women would gain the right to vote.
If we are to look at the impact of women in politics, we must mention Minnesota's first female elected to Congress, Coya Knutson. Coya was elected in 1954 after having served two terms in the Minnesota legislature.

Coya was a teacher, and a rather gifted musician. She was the precursory to today's "Super Woman" balancing a career and home life with great aplomb. But Coya didn't go to Washington to mark time. She was successful because she championed the issues and values that have been dear to Minnesotans for decades.

Coya became the first woman on the House Agriculture Committee and pioneered the Food Stamp Bill in 1957-a bill that passed in 1964. In this, I truly identify with Coya. Agriculture is so important, so vital to our well being. When we reorganized the Senate four years ago, I requested to be chair of the Agriculture Committee. So persuasive was I, that I won that position on the first vote. But then, Senator Linda Berglin stepped in - insisting that I become chair of the health policy committee because of my depth of knowledge in that area. You see Senator Berglin won, and in fact that was OK since I wanted to be chair of health as well. That's why I actually wanted to be Governor, because then one can be "chair" of everything since all policy is so interconnected. Yes. You could find me, after I lost the primary, in the dairy aisle of the grocery stores, holding to my heart one result of my legislative career, a container of milk from cows not treated with the bovine growth hormone.

Here's how Mary Pruitt characterized Coya's support for the Food Stamp bill: "The Food Stamp Bill reflected the kind of public policy that characterized Knutson's legislation. It was good for poor families, for the grocery industry and for her core constituency: family farmers." Coya knew what to do and she had the courage to do it. Again, we thought alike, Coya and I: when the federal government cut food for the immigrants in the mid 90's, I offered an amendment in the health committee to restore the cuts here in Minnesota knowing that if people don't eat they will show up on our hospital doorsteps - therefore, making sure people have enough food to eat is not only humanitarian, it is also fiscally responsible. That didn't fly, so I asked Senator Steve Morse, Chair of Environment and Agriculture Finance, if he could help since Food Stamps come through the Ag Committee on the Federal level. Steve said that he would set $1 million aside for me if I could figure out how to use it. We established the MinnesotaGrown Food Coupon plan which not only feed elderly and disabled immigrants, but it also was the start up catalyst for many food producers in our state. These farmers responded to this market; they are thriving today, years after the MinnesotaGrown food coupon support was discontinued (discontinued because the feds realized their mistake and restored some of the funding for food).

As a teacher, Coya knew the value of a solid education. To help students and families pay for college, she created the National Student Defense Loan program, adapted from a law her cousin promoted in Norway. The bill passed without a single dissenting vote.

Of course, we all know what happened to Coya: political scandal surrounded her in the late 1950s and the "Coya Come Home" letters orchestrated by her political opponents contributed to her defeat by 1400 votes. Yet, her experience has taught us lessons and given us warning that we put into practice today.

Before her death in 1996, Coya said "....I've always found that women have to work twice as hard as men. They're coming from behind and have to catch up." I believe the positive thing today is that women have equal standing; I would say that currently, it is the progressives, environmentalists, peace and justice advocates who are "coming from behind and have to catch up".

Betty McCollum, who was the SECOND female elected to Congress from Minnesota, and Amy Klobuchar who is joining her in Washington, have to work harder than ever in this environment to achieve the goals they believe in.

Coya's issues and values were right on the mark. Progressive women involved in politics have not wavered from those core values in over half a century.

When I came into the legislature in 1990, I pushed for universal health care, quality affordable child care, organic and sustainable farming and the markets to make these businesses successful - I remember well one day, in the retiring room, a long time male member who opposed much of my agenda, said to me, "I miss the good old days when we all wore suits, when we knew our places and we didn't do silly legislation". I said, "You mean legislation like health care and child care?" He said, "YES!" I just hugged him and said with joy that of course this would be difficult for him.
We need to step outside our comfort zone if we are to make the changes needed to safeguard our values.

Our voice needs to be loud and strong and our government has to be proactive, not reactive. So much of what happens at both the state and national level is a reaction to some other event. We need to change how we do business.

And, if we don't make these changes we risk losing a cohesive society where families and individuals earn enough to support themselves, achieve good health, care for one another in strong communities and have the opportunity to be creative in their businesses.

I look back over the last 16 years since I stared my work in the legislature and I see immense change that has dramatically affected our society. Clearly, we are living in a global society and events or policy changes around the world can have a significant ripple effect. When I came into office, I was not aware that we must become energy independent and food self-sufficient to be safe - as must other societies. And although I fought for fair trade not free trade as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was negotiated, I still was not prepared for the damage NAFTA has brought.

The United States faces an immigration problem and some believe we need to build a fence to keep immigrants out, and yet it is our country's policy in agriculture and trade that has helped create a low-wage economy in Mexico that encourages Mexicans to flee their homeland for better jobs here. Mexican farmers can no longer make a living on their land, so they moved to the Mexican border with the United States to work in the Maquiladoras (factories). Then, with the removal of tariffs, corporations could afford to close the Maquiladoras rather than improve working and environmental conditions as occurred in the Pacific Rim countries. Today, these corporations, many of them U.S. companies, move jobs to find the cheapest labor - this does not build strong economies or strong nations, or good relationships.

We need to respond to global warming, to peak oil, not hide our heads in the sand like an ostrich by wishing it weren't so. If legislators get frustrated, just think how frustrating it must be to be a scientist dealing with global warming or measuring how fast we are using up fossil fuels versus how much is left in the earth. I believe in the precautionary principle and in policies that preserve the earth for the next seven generations. The universe doesn't care about whether or not our little planet survives. It is up to us. What is important, if it is not the people and the earth from which they gain their sustenance? Our environment cannot withstand the ravages of a petroleum dependent world that looks the other way as our climate changes.

Interestingly, our economies can thrive if we invest in the research to meet the demands of a sustainable existence. We can develop sustainable technology for every area - whether it is wind, solar, or biofuels; we can invest in sustainable crops and produce the necessities for a healthy body and trade for the extras. We can repeat the economic success that was a bi-product of our country's space exploration - Tang, lightweight but warm clothing, and so much more. Research done at our colleges and our land grant university would be available for all business rather than sold to just one - the vibrancy would be exhilarating.

We need to realize that our children need a strong, quality education system that will teach them to respect other cultures and religions and not react with fear to people who look and act differently from them.

Finally, if we continue to ignore the health of our citizens, our standard of living will definitely diminish. Health care is one area where prevention is key and reaction unacceptable. I'm going to use my bill to shut of the soda pop machines during the instructional hours of the school day as an example.

Soda pop was a treat when I was growing up, and I only served it to my children when there was a birthday party. Thus, it was pretty easy for me to see the multi-challenges with soda pop companies facing our kids and our schools - serious health problems, the underfunding of our schools, not to mention the concept of our kids as captive consumers. Many schools in Minnesota set up purchase agreements with beverage companies because they needed the revenue to offset what they lacked in support from the government; beverage companies loved this because "branding" young kids gives them reliable customers for generations. So, who gets hurt? Our kids as they suffer from diabetes, obesity, tooth decay, increased risk of osteoporosis and increased hyper-activity in the classroom - ask any teacher. Being proactive on health care is not an option, it's essential.
Obviously we have a lot to do. But I have confidence that we are on the right track after some years of set back. It is all of us who will make a difference, not just our elected officials; we all have power. It is a darn good thing I believe this, or I would have a lot more trouble surviving the primary loss. We all have a role to play - each in our corner of the world. We will preserve the values that nurture and invigorate future generations.

Coya Knutson said that women had to work harder to accomplish things. Not only must we work hard, but we must also be wise and select the things that will affect the most change. If we push a legislative agenda that includes adequate funds for early childhood education, we won't have to spend so much time on remediation later on. If our families can afford quality health care, our workers will be sick less often and be more productive, enhancing our economic development.

If we invest in renewable energy and food self-sufficiency, we can get a handle on global warming and peak oil to secure a safe environment for our children.

If we enact economic policies that allow families to lift themselves out of poverty, we build communities without border fences or fear.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton may have said it best:
"The happiest people I have known have been those who gave themselves no concern about their own souls, but did their uttermost to mitigate the miseries of others."

I am convinced we have to follow the example of our foremothers like Coya Knutson, who knew she had to step outside her comfort zone to affect change. In "Coya Come Home" Gretchen Urnes Beito writes this about Knuston's desire to run for Congress:

"....It wasn't in her (Coya's) nature to seek comfort and security. She felt a tremendous longing to meet a new challenge. She set her sights on Congress."

We don't all have to run for Congress, or Governor, or even the state legislature to make our state and nation better places to live. But we must partner with elected officials, support the goals and values we share, by informing, educating and organizing the populace - creating a bully pulpit of sorts through groups like the AAUW, the League of Women Voters, and PTAs across the state.

Think of anti-war activist and mother Cindy Sheehan. Just one year ago I was standing with her to denounce the violence in Iraq. Who would have thought that her sentiments would have reverberated enough to change the political make-up in Congress? It's amazing how strong words spoken at the right time can have a profound effect on our lives.

We need to remember the hard work and persistence of those brave suffragists who worked for almost over 75 years to ensure women's voices were heard at the ballot box. We only need to hear this description of Sarah Stearns, who for years, organized, cajoled and persuaded male Minnesota legislators that women indeed had the mettle to be involved in politics.

It was written at the time that Sarah Stearns "possessed the tenacity of purpose, the dogged persistence of a true reformer; no discouragements, rebuff nor ingratitude seemed to downhearten her or swerve her from what she considered right."

Neither will rebuffs downhearten or swerve us - because we know with joy that we can, and indeed must, make a difference!

Thank you!