Gaining Ground: Women in Politics

Regardless of which side of the political aisle you sit on, the desire for a more balanced representation of women in public policy-making positions is shared by many (men and women). From Minnesota to the Middle East, women are taking action like we haven’t seen in decades, if ever, to be heard and fight for justice. 


Even though women make up more than half of the U.S. population, they remain underrepresented in Congress, holding only 20 percent of the seats. At the beginning of 2017, sources at Emerging America state that women comprise less than 25 percent of seats in state legislatures, 10 percent of all governors and 18 percent of mayors in cities with more than 30,000 residents. 

Research indicates that while women in political races are elected to office at the same rate as men, the recruitment rate for women is drastically lower. They often don’t even reach the proverbial pipeline. Since the election in November 2016, EMILY’s List, She Should Run and other groups that encourage women to seek public office have seen an unprecedented rise in interest.

“Women need a lot more encouragement (to run) than men do,” says Sheila Kiscaden, 2017 vice chair of Olmsted County Board of Commissioners. Kiscaden is a former Minnesota State Senator who was first elected in 1992 to represent District 30, which includes most of Rochester and some surrounding areas. During her 15 years in the State Senate, Kiscaden saw increasing need for our elected bodies to more accurately reflect the diversity of our communities. She understands the extra nudge it takes to convince women, many of whom have careers and families, to run for office. 


Rochester has been fortunate to have many female pioneers pave the path. Jane Campion, Carol Kamper, Nancy Brataas, Ann Lynch, Tina Liebling and Carla Nelson have made an impact on Rochester’s political environment.

When Kim Norton, whose 10-year run in the Minnesota House of Representatives concluded this past January, first decided to run for office, she garnered support from many of these women. “Rochester had true trailblazers,” Norton says. “It’s not necessarily a large number, but it’s certainly been a steady stream.” Norton received ongoing encouragement and support, even when they didn’t see eye-to-eye on the issues. “I could pick up the phone anytime and call Nancy,” Norton recalls, even though Brataas was on the other side of the aisle.

Brataas made headlines in 1975 when she became the first woman elected to the Minnesota Senate. Since then, her seat has been filled by only women, with Kiscaden succeeding Nancy and serving 14 years, followed by Ann Lynch for four years and Carla Nelson for six. 

These women and others paved the way for other women to feel more confident taking on a political role in Rochester. “You knew the door was open,” Norton says. “The strong women who were there before me made it easier for me to step into a role and feel like I deserved it.”


The Rochester City Council has seen its share of strong women leaders as well. Nancy Selby was elected as the council’s first female president in 1988, and Sandra Means was chosen as the first black council member in 2003. 

In 2016, upon hearing that Sandra was not seeking reelection to the City Council, political newcomer Annalissa Johnson announced that she would campaign for the seat. Johnson says she had several reasons for running, but cites an issue with a city law that affected her small business as the catalyst that finally prompted her to throw her hat in the political ring. 

“I attended a couple of council meetings and heard a lot of ‘I think’ comments from the council members instead of ‘This is what my constituents are saying.’” Johnson says she believed people in the city’s wards had been vocal about the law but didn’t feel the council’s decision on the subject accurately reflected the wishes of the people. 

She also recognizes the value of having a predecessor like Sandra. “I connected with Sandra before I decided to run,” she says, “and have found her to be a welcoming and knowledgeable resource.” 

Though she has only been on the job for a couple of months, Johnson has found the experience with the council and her constituents to be positive. She is currently exploring ways to engage with her constituents and echoes the recommendations of seasoned political allies, saying, “If you want a voice, you need to connect with your representatives, stand up and take action.”


One of the easiest ways to be heard is to cast your vote in every election, not just every fourth November. An estimated 58 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots during the 2016 election, a number second only to the election in 2012.

Organizations like the League of Women Voters (LWV) are dedicated to protecting, educating and encouraging everyone who is eligible to vote. The specific focus of the nonpartisan LWV is to get first-time voters, non-college youth, new citizens, minorities, the elderly and low-income Americans to the polls and help them understand both their right and obligation to vote. They also provide the platform for nonpartisan debates throughout the election cycle. 

“One of our values has always been that women should have the
right to run on even footing as men,” says Jane Callahan, president of the Rochester chapter of the LWV. The group also works to simplify and standardize the voting process, which still varies greatly from state to state.

Callahan has seen many women elected from both parties over the 30+ years since she first joined LWV. “These women have served as springboards for other women to get involved and believe that they, too, can make a difference and be a part of history.”


While the 2016 presidential election may have resulted in political unrest, it is inciting women (and men) from around the globe to get involved. “What we saw in the election was democracy in action,” says Kiscaden. “Now we are seeing people use their power as citizens. It’s a wonderful time for citizen activism.” 

“Gaining confidence takes time,” says Norton, who encourages up-and-comers to join a nonprofit or serve on a board. “It took me a lot of years to develop my skillset,” she continues. “It takes time, but it’s time worth taking.”

Sarah Oslund is a freelance writer and owner of Inspire Marketing & Consulting,