Three local women will provide oral historiesComprehensive oral histories telling the stories of six Minnesota women who were elected to political office were recorded as part of making the “Women Making Change” documentary, which premiers Sept. 24 at the Sheldon Theatre.
By: Ruth Nerhaugen, The Republican Eagle
Comprehensive oral histories telling the stories of six Minnesota women who were elected to political office were recorded as part of making the “Women Making Change” documentary, which premiers Sept. 24 at the Sheldon Theatre.
The documentary is a joint project of the American Association of University Women-Red Wing Area Branch and Twin Cities Public Television. AAUW members were instrumental in developing lists of women to be considered for the project and in drafting questions for interviews on women in politics in Minnesota. TPT’s Hlee Lee conducted the interviews.
The Minnesota Women’s Consortium, which was fiscal agent for AAUW project, received a Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment grant to fund the oral histories, which will be available electronically at the Minnesota History Center. Printed copies will be provided to the Goodhue County History Center as well.
A total of 15 women and girls were interviewed for the documentary. Of the total, six women are represented in the oral histories.
Three are from Goodhue County: Sandy Wollschlager of Cannon Falls, first woman elected as a state representative in Goodhue County; Joanell Dyrstad of Red Wing, first woman mayor of Red Wing and first Republican woman elected lieutenant governor; and Audrey Bennett, first woman elected tribal chair of the Prairie Island Indian Community.
Three others also provided oral histories: Joan Anderson Growe, who served two years in the House, was longtime secretary of state and was a candidate for U.S. Senate; Kathy Tingelstad, who served 12 years in the House representing Anoka County and was the first Republican woman to chair the Governmental Operations and Veterans Affairs Committee; and Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who was the first woman endorsed by a major political party for governor.
Following is a synopsis of the three Goodhue County women’s stories:
A Mdewakanton Dakota from the Prairie Island Indian Community, Bennett was raised by her extended family unit on Prairie Island. There was no electricity then, but always many chores.
“I think I learned responsibility at a very early age,” she said.
Her father served on the Tribal Council for 20 years, “so we were always involved in politics that way,” she said, recalling visits from U.S. Sen. Hubert Humphrey and his wife, Muriel.
“I think growing up in that environment I was aware of what I wanted to be. I remember growing up thinking I want to be like my dad. And sure enough, I had the opportunity to do that.”
Bennett said she did not feel resistance because of her gender. “My dad and uncles would say, ‘Stand up for what you believe. … Don’t every let anyone tell you just because you are a girl you cannot do it, because you can.’”
In their culture, she added, “I think Native American women are held at a higher standard just for the simple fact that we are givers of life and we are more respected in the community as leaders and as women because we are also the caretakers.. … When I got involved with politics, that was nothing new. I was already accepted.”
When Treasure Island Casino opened, Bennett got a job as the tribe’s government relations specialist, working on the state and federal levels. Following that, elders asked her to think about running for tribal office. She served as Tribal Council president for 10 years, dealing with issues including nuclear waste. Bennett felt it was important to find common ground and work jointly with the state of Minnesota. She also served on state and national organizations.
“I always looked at myself as just another person — the same issues and dreams and thoughts and compassions,” she said. “I was never afraid to speak up on the issues that I had a passion for.”
Growing up in southwestern Minnesota, Dyrstad was close to her grandparents as well as her immediate family. She helped out in her grandfather’s store when she was about 8 years old, learning to make decisions while very young. She and her husband were in their 20s when they purchased a pharmacy in Red Wing.
Early on, she realized one of her strengths was an ability to work with a broad spectrum of individuals. In 1984, after serving on a number of local boards and commissions, she was encouraged by the incumbent mayor to file for that office, as he did not intend to run again. “I wanted to contribute to the community in another way,” Dyrstad explained, and her family supported the idea.
“I was the first woman to run for office as mayor in Red Wing,” she said, and many women in the community came out to help. They went door to door with her literature. Dyrstad was elected in 1985 and served three two-year terms.
In 1990, Arne Carlson asked her to join him on the ballot as his lieutenant governor candidate. After a series of ups and downs, they were elected, and she became the first Republican woman to hold the office. Dyrstad was the first woman to give part of the State of the State address, at Carlson’s suggestion.
“I did want to represent women and I think indicate the significant contributions that women can make — that they should be noticed and given the opportunity in whatever their chosen field, and not to be held back simply because they are women.” Dyrstad felt she had to prove herself to men, but also to women; she needed support from both.
Historically, she said, Red Wing and Goodhue County have had many women hold important offices, from Ambassador Eugenie Anderson to many who served on school boards.
“I think that played a major role in inspiring me, looking back at women who had accomplished it already … and were respected and admired for what they had done, and for their accomplishments. They really, truly contributed in the areas that they were involved in, and I felt that I could make a contribution as a woman as well.”
Minnesota has not yet elected a woman governor, but she believes that “someday we’ll break through there. There is a barrier, right now, perhaps because not enough women have had the opportunity to get the experience level.”
Married right out of high school, Wollschlager worked in a factory until a labor dispute put her on a picket line. She went to a vocational-technical college to acquire skills so she could get a better job and had a real break — a job at 3M Co. — when she graduated. Her boss told her she was a hard worker but needed a college degree to advance. It took her years to earn that degree while working full time and having children, but she did it.
Wollschlager was “pretty young” when she learned an important lesson about politics and power. Her family had a cabin on Prairie Island when Northern States Power Co. decided to build a nuclear power plant there. Neither the family nor the local Native Americans could prevent it, she said.
“My first sense of power or change was about having something taken away from me,” she said. “I clearly have a sense of right and wrong,” and a desire to work on issues of injustice.
After completing her studies, Wollschlager won a science, technology and public policy fellowship to Harvard University’ Kennedy School of Government. Her professors encouraged her to take classes where she learned about power.
She ran for the Cannon Falls School Board in 1997 because her experiences with her own children convinced her some changes were needed. She worked to get a referendum passed and improvements made in the science curriculum.
“I went from school board to running for state office because in 1998, Jesse Ventura won the governorship and promptly changed the way schools were funded,” she said. Basically, the gains made with the referendum were taken away.
Some legislators contacted her, encouraging her to run for office. “In 2002, no woman had ever won in Goodhue County,” she said, “and it had been at least a generation since a Democrat had won. So it was a near impossible district.”
She won in Wabasha County, but lost that election and a second attempt.
“The third time running is a lot about courage,” Wollschlager said. “It was tough to get back up.” One thing that helped her was a weeklong class on leadership. A man in her class “coached me on how to survive in a man’s world, which is what Goodhue County was at that time,” she said. She won the election.
She felt pressured to represent women, especially women in tough situations. “I definitely felt like I’m going up to the Capitol to represent them, because they need help,”?she said.
It was a challenge. “I had to prove myself more than the male counterparts times 10,” she said.