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Women’s activism on ‘crest of a wave’ in Twin Ports and beyond

A few of the hundreds of people taking part in Duluth’s Women’s March protesting Donald Trump’s presidency march through a skywalk over Michigan Street last January. Another march is planned for this month. News Tribune file photo

First, some history.

In 1992, amid a national dialogue on sexual harassment, a record number of women were elected to Congress, and so it became known as the "Year of the Woman." Minnesota had yet to elect a female senator, however, and Duluth hadn't yet put a woman in the mayor's office.

Now, some updates.

A new record number of women are running for office this fall, Minnesota will soon have two sitting female senators for the first time in its history, the state could elect a woman governor and women are taking an increasing share of seats in local government.

If 2018 is again to be the Year of the Woman, the Twin Ports will be playing a part.

"It feels like we're on the crest of a wave right now," said Jamie Ratliff, a University of Minnesota Duluth professor and member of the local Feminist Action Collective. "It's nice to be in a position where so many women are being heard right now, and we're seeing a real response to the kinds of oppression and harassment and abuse and everyday sexism women are subject to."

The biggest spotlight has recently been on sexual harassment, especially as committed by men in positions of power, but violence against women, pay inequity, sex trafficking, unequal representation and other issues persist. Ratliff said the momentum of the #metoo movement can help build a culture around supporting women and improving their lives everywhere.

"We keep working, finding more platforms and vehicles to keep amplifying those voices," she said. "We keep trying to lift up our sisters, especially sisters of color, and get more women in office and in elected positions — we need more women in leadership positions."

New wave

"The confluence of the right people and the right time and place created the conditions to foster the innovative, influential and enduring feminist community that calls the Twin Ports home," UMD women's studies professor Beth Bartlett wrote in her 2016 book "Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior."

While she was writing about organizations that took hold in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a similar surge of local activism and organizing is taking place now, as seen by the formation of the Feminist Action Collective, the launch of FEmn Fest and the return of the Women's March in a few weeks.

"It's been really hopeful and wonderful for me to see that women of all ages who have not been an activist before or not involved in politics before are getting involved," Bartlett told the News Tribune recently. "As we've been seeing in the #metoo movement, one of the main things that has deprived women of power is that women have been silenced for thousands of years. And they are actually starting to be believed now when we speak out."

But where there has been progress in the past, there has been resistance, she said, and now is no different.

"We're a long ways from a major paradigm shift," Bartlett said. "I talk to people everyday who are just angry or sad or fearful, traumatized, paralyzed, despondent, despairing over what is happening in this country. So it's hard to say this is a real turning point, because the national political forces are so omnipresent and huge."

Forces like misogyny in politics and the workplace have galvanized recent organizing to combat institutional sexism, Bartlett said.

"We're better off in terms of activism and awareness and empowerment and agency. It's been great to see so many women's and men's consciousness raised," she said. "That's an upside for the enormous hammer that fell with the election of Donald Trump."

Passing it on

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said she is where she is today in part because of the kind of organizing and activism that is on the rise in the Twin Ports and beyond.

"I have an opportunity to serve as mayor because there have been many strong, courageous women who have blazed a path before me," she said. "I'm certainly not the first woman eligible to have this seat."

And she's making sure she won't be the last. Gov. Mark Dayton this fall appointed Larson to the Young Women's Initiative of Minnesota, a public-private partnership that seeks to offer leadership training, mentoring and other opportunities to "create a Minnesota where every girl has a chance to thrive," as the mayor put it.

"I feel strongly that when we create opportunities for leadership for women we free up all these gender stereotypes — it's good for women and men," Larson said, adding that it helps break down "unseen biases" that contribute to issues such as pay inequity.

Local leadership coach Pam Solberg-Tapper said women-focused business networks have been on the rise as "women want to engage in conversations that matter to them and their careers such as working and communicating across generations, diversity and inclusion, reinventing themselves and ways to grow professionally as leaders."

Abigail Mlinar, founder of the Feminist Action Collective, said the group has a number of initiatives planned for 2018, including the 50x25 campaign that seeks equal representation in elected office, corporate boards, management and other leadership roles by 2025.

"If women are 50 percent of humans, women should be 50 percent of leaders," the campaign says. "We are committed to leading Minnesota into a new era of progress, one in which inequality has no place at the table, and women do — whether that table is in our state capitol, our corporate conference rooms, our council chambers, or our county commissions."

Mlinar said the region has the chance to make that happen by making women's voices stand out in 2018 and beyond.

"The Year of the Woman is, to me, about opportunities to see women not as the gimmick/cover model/visually appealing draw to entice someone into male content. It's about hearing women's words. Listening to women's issues. And acknowledging women's work."

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

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