Historic class of women shaping Minnesota policy, budgets

Briana Bierschbach, Star Tribune
·6 min read

A historic class of women is shaping policy and holding influential leadership positions at the Minnesota Capitol, a building that, when it first opened in 1905, didn't even have restrooms for them.

The 72 women serving in the Legislature this year — the most ever in state history — include the youngest woman ever elected to the state Senate and the first Native American woman to serve in that chamber. Women lead top finance committees in both chambers as the state shapes its two-year budget, and Speaker Melissa Hortman is the third woman to wield the Minnesota House gavel. More women of color are serving in St. Paul than ever before.

"We've got just an amazing class of women, and you can see that because of the work product," said Republican Rep. Marion O'Neill. "We're doing things that have never been done before."

They're pushing bills to close pay gaps and loopholes in law for sexual assault victims. They want more accommodations for pregnant women and new moms in the workplace, as well as allowing women in prison to spend time with their newborns. As the pandemic continues to disproportionately affect women, they're using strength in numbers to push issues that sat stagnant for years in the male-dominated Capitol.

"Representation absolutely matters," said Sen. Lindsey Port, a freshman Democrat from Burnsville. "The people who are in the room writing legislation are deciding what are going to be our priorities and what we're going to fight for. If we're not in the room, it's not going to be bills focused specifically on women."

Their experiences as women — not party labels — were what brought O'Neill and DFL Rep. Kelly Moller together to push for an overhaul of the state's criminal sexual conduct statutes, including decades-old language that considers a victim of sexual assault "mentally incapacitated" only if the person was forcibly intoxicated.

"It's an opportunity for me and advocates to do some education around these issues," said Moller, a prosecutor from Shoreview.

Moller never thought about running for office until Donald Trump graphically described groping a woman's genitals in a Hollywood Access tape before being elected president. O'Neill, a rising star in the Republican Party from Maple Lake, had more recently opened up about being a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault.

"I guess it was a therapeutic path and also realizing the laws in Minnesota are pretty bad," O'Neill said.

At the same time their numbers climb at the Capitol, unemployment for women during the pandemic reached double digits for the first time since 1948. Women suffered a net loss nationally of 140,000 jobs in December.

Freshman Rep. Heather Keeler, DFL-Moorhead, is trying to revive the Office on the Economic Status of Women this session, a one-woman research operation that was unceremoniously defunded in a 2017 state budget bill.

"Women are stretched very thin on a lot of levels anyway," said Keeler. "This office's efforts are geared toward making sure women are ensured stable jobs, fair pay, equal pay, but also equal opportunities."

Women of color have borne the brunt of the economic toll, said Rep. Hodan Hassan, a Minneapolis Democrat who saw Lake Street businesses in her district destroyed during riots after George Floyd's death. A proposal she's carrying would give women of color grants and technical assistance for their businesses.

It would also provide mentorship, something that's often lacking for young girls of color. Hassan, who is Muslim, remembers Somali girls wearing headscarves spotting her at the Capitol during a tour in 2019.

"Their jaws dropped and they said, 'You work here?' They saw someone who looks like them in a space where they didn't expect to see someone who looks like them," she said.

The rise in women serving in Minnesota's Capitol mirrors trends nationally. The 143 women serving in Congress this year shattered a record set two years ago. For the first time ever, women make up more than 30% of seats in state legislatures, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

But men represent two-thirds of Minnesota's 201-seat Legislature, despite making up less than half of the state's population. And recent sexual harassment allegations against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo reminded many women that the reckoning that followed the MeToo movement is not finished.

"Clearly, this is not done. We are not past the fight," said Port, who as an activist in 2017 came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against former DFL state Sen. Dan Schoen. That prompted other women to share their experiences with sexual harassment in politics.

Studies show the qualities that make women more likely to work across the aisle can also dissuade them from jumping into politics in the first place. "Women are very turned off by politics, the ugliness and the nastiness is a difficult hurdle for women to overcome," said Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch, who is trying to recruit more GOP women.

Of the 15 new women elected to the Legislature last fall, three are Republicans. Women often need to be asked several times before they run for office. "You really have to try and seek out those candidates," she said. "Those women aren't going to come to us, we have to find them."

Sen. Julia Coleman, a 29-year-old Republican from Chanhassen, became the youngest woman ever elected to the Senate last fall. But she faced criticism when people realized she was pregnant. They asked how she could serve in the Senate as a new mom.

"That rhetoric is so bad for people who want to jump in," said Coleman, who is now carrying a bill that would prohibit an employer for docking pay when a woman is breastfeeding or pumping. "Surgeons have babies. People with all sorts of difficult and time-consuming careers do it with children. It's just such a hard thing for women to hear."

While the physical space of the Capitol has adapted over the past 116 years, it only recently added more bathrooms for women and pumping spaces for new moms. And since state legislators are technically part-timers, they don't get any time off, including maternity or parental leave.

Rep. Athena Hollins, a freshman Democrat from St. Paul, hopes there's some good that can come out of the pandemic for women — a more flexible work environment with remote options.

"It's forced people to reconsider what are the norms that we want to live with, what are the cultural expectations that we want to have for people?" she said. "We no longer live in the 1950s. It's time for us to take a look at the structures that we have in place."

bbierschbach@startribune.com • 651-925-5042