Local View: Duluth, be proud this Women’s History Month — but there’s more to do
From the column: "A long line of women have achieved political prominence in Duluth and the Northland, including a number of state legislators, mayors, and other elected officials."
Duluth and the Northland are joining the rest of the nation, indeed the world, in commemorating Women’s History Month in March.
Similar to its February predecessor, Black History Month, and its successor this autumn, National Hispanic Heritage Month, Women’s History Month recognizes the achievements of its namesake as well as the trials and tribulations they have overcome and obstacles they continue to encounter as they strive for equity.
Highlighted by International Women’s Day on March 8, Women’s History Month comes at a propitious time this year, including the 51st anniversary of the passage by Congress of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) on March 23, 1972. But that measure, which would bar discrimination based on sex as the 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, is at an impasse. Although it was rapidly approved by 35 states, including Minnesota, shortly after passage by both houses of Congress, it stalled and was unable to obtain the necessary endorsement of three more states to reach the three-fourths threshold of 38 states required for ratification and inclusion in the Constitution.
Many years later, after the time period for adoption had been extended by Congress, three other jurisdictions joined the bandwagon, the latest in 2020, nearly five decades after the congressional passage.
In the meantime, five others rescinded their approvals, leading to seemingly inevitable litigation, including two dueling lawsuits in federal courts along the East Coast, one in Boston and the other in Washington, D.C.
The cases have not gone well for ERA proponents. A pair of federal trial and appellate courts in Boston have tossed out the one by pro-ERA states on the procedural technicality that those states lack “standing” to sue. The other lawsuit in the nation’s capital met the same fate, as a trial judge there, Rudolph Contreras — an appointee of President Barack Obama, no less — decided before going a step further and ruling on the merits that the belated ratifiers are “too late to count” because the ratification deadline had “expired.” With that ruling now on appeal, a distinct possibility exists that the Supreme Court may have to step in to adjudicate the imbroglio.
Meanwhile, in Minnesota, a so-called mini version of the ERA is advancing through the Legislature with full-throttled backing from the DFL. Its movement through the chambers in St. Paul comes after the proposition was stalled for years, largely due to opposition from Republicans and some sectors of the business community. They fear an avalanche of lawsuits under the measure. But the companion bills in the two legislative chambers have a high likelihood of achieving the necessary majority blessings in each house and making its way to the voters, who must approve by a 50% majority plus one for it to become a state constitutional provision.
Although termed “mini,” the Minnesota measure actually is ERA on steroids. It would go much further by its terms than the federal counterpart to bar discrimination, extending to many classifications beyond gender, including age, disability, race, sexual orientation, and identification, among other features.
The proposal has had strong support over the years, including members of the Duluth DFL delegation, especially women solons who have been in the forefront of its promulgation and promotion.
That support is part of the solid foundation that Women’s History Month has here in Duluth and the Northland, grounded on the achievements of women, which are substantial and increasing, led by Emily Larson, the city’s first female mayor. Other female leadership in Duluth municipal government includes the first Black woman as City Council president, Janet Kennedy, who took the reins at City Hall this year.
A long line of women have achieved political prominence in Duluth and the Northland, including a number of state legislators, mayors, and other elected officials. The height of their political success was probably Yvonne Prettner Solon, the psychologist and former legislator from Duluth who served as lieutenant governor in the first administration of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton from 2011 to 2014. She was replaced on the ticket by Tina Smith, who later became a U.S. senator, joining Amy Klobuchar, whose roots run deep in the North Country, from her late father Jim, a prominent and popular journalist and author from Ely. The pair of women senators make Minnesota one of only four states represented by a pair of women in the U.S. Senate.
Prettner Solon was in the midst of the string of Minnesota women in that position, both from the DFL and GOP, since Marlene Johnson, a Brahma native, was the running mate in the successful 1982 campaign of Hibbing’s Rudy Perpich, the Iron Ranger who contributed mightily to women’s history by appointing Rosalie Wahl in 1977 as the first woman on the seven-member Minnesota Supreme Court, a tribunal now occupied by four women, headed by Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea from tiny Plummer in Red Lake County.
Women’s achievements here have not been confined to the political arena. There’s the late Jeanne Sederberg, the highly regarded first woman state court judge from Duluth, whose pioneering role was chronicled in a December column in the News Tribune. Other women have played key roles here in the arts, business, education, law, media, nonprofits, religion, sports, and other fields. And don’t forget homemakers for they, too, serve as role models for their quiet but important accomplishments for their families and communities.
To paraphrase a cigarette jingle directed at women in the 1970s, around the same time the Equal Rights Amendment was approved by Congress, “You’ve come a long way, ladies.”
Keep on coming.
Marshall H. Tanick is a constitutional law attorney in Minneapolis and a regular contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page.