Wendy Reuer, Published November 13 2013
Women of Moorhead ready to 'open some eyes'
For the first time in Moorhead’s 132-year history, women will make up the majority of the City Council.
On Jan. 1, the city’s first female mayor, Del Rae Williams, will take office along with 1st Ward Councilwoman-elect Mari Dailey. The duo joins 3rd Ward Councilwoman Brenda Elmer – who won her second term on Nov. 5 – 2nd Ward Councilwoman Heidi Durand and 1st Ward Councilwoman Nancy Otto.
The Moorhead School Board is also dominated by women: Chairwoman Lisa Erikson, and board members Cindy Fagerlie, Laurie Johnson, Trudy Wilmar serve alongside Bill Tomhave, Scott Steffes and Matt Valan, as well as Superintendent Lynne Kovash. That means women will make up the majority of elected positions in Moorhead in 2014.
While the U.S. Census says women account for about half of the population, an equal ratio of men to women in government is rare.
There were 131 female mayors elected from the 853 cities across the state in 2013 and 950 women served on city councils, according to the League of Minnesota Cities.
Only 10 cities had four or more women serving on a city council, and only the cities of Minneapolis, St. Louis Park and Lauderdale – where the four-person city council is comprised of all women – had a majority of councilwomen in 2013, according to data provided by the League.
The Center for American Women and Politics reports that women account for 24 percent of state legislature seats across the country and only 18 percent of the U.S. Congress is female.
Deborah White, chairwoman of the sociology and criminal justice department at Minnesota State University Moorhead coordinates the annual Tri-College NEW Leadership Development Institute at MSUM, which aims to provide leadership training and support to women.
White said by far the biggest factor why so few women are in leadership roles is that fewer actually run for office.
“You can’t win if you don’t run,” she said.
White said while more women run in local races than at the national level, top executive spots such as mayoral or gubernatorial races are not often filled by women.
Williams, who as mayor will not vote on council matters unless there is a tie, could not say on election night whether her gender played a role in the election, although she did receive “one or two” emails discouraging her from the post because she is a woman.
“I found that the biggest support and excitement came from retired women,” Councilwoman-elect Dailey said of her election run. “I think that is probably because they were voting in the ’60s and ’70s when women typically didn’t run.”
White said the gender of leaders is not necessarily a factor for success, but an elected body that more closely reflects its population has a better chance of accurately reflecting those issues the community holds important.
Otto, Elmer, Durand and Dailey all say they are looking forward to seeing how the new council will interact.
“Everybody coming onto the council has a different background and different experiences that they bring to the table, and that really is what I’m looking forward to,” Elmer said.
Most of the women say gender has not been a highly discussed issue with constituents, although the newest wave of women in government could be an inspiration to up and coming leadership.
Durand said more women on the council also could help take away an intimidation factor that all-male boards can have.
“I think it will open some eyes,” she said. “It could be the start of something new.”
After Otto’s first run for office in 1999, she was the lone female serving on the Moorhead council from 2000 to 2003 when Lauri Winterfeldt was elected.
“It’s women stepping out in courage because it does take courage to run for public office,” Otto said. “It takes courage to stand up and state that this is what I think can and should be done to improve our community.”
On Dec. 31, when Mayor Mark Voxland’s term expires after 12 years in the office, Otto will become the longest-serving council member.
While Otto said she looks forward to having more women join her side, she doubts gender will be a topic often addressed.
“I’ve never felt like gender should matter,” she said. “If you’re doing a good job, you’re doing a good job.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530