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When Brenda Johnsonís five year old daughter grows up, sheíll assume that leadership is something that comes naturally to women. Johnson first started bringing her daughter along to Chatfield economic development commission meetings when she was little. "I put her in the high chair, and fed her strained bananas during the meetings. She thinks this is what all mamas do."
Johnson belongs to a small but growing group in Fillmore County: she is a woman serving on the Chatfield City Council. Sixty council members and mayors serve in the various small towns in Fillmore County, and 20% are women.
School districts and counties also offer elected leadership opportunities for women. As the local political season kicks into high gear, voters are on the hunt for good candidates to fill vacancies on city councils, and other elected offices. Johnson, who is running for election to a second term, says, "we need the best people to run. Some of those must be women."
Johnson thinks there are lots of reasons why more women arenít serving. "Lots of women donít know that itís okay for women to do some of these things. If they see mostly men on the council, they donít think of it as something women do." Johnson is in a unique position to observe elected officials. It addition to her council duties, she serves as President of the Regional League of Cities for an area that includes six counties and thirty cities. She observes that what gets people involved in government is service on various boards and commissions. "But even most of those groups are male dominated," she says.
Why arenít there more women holding elected office? Helen Bicknese, a current Fillmore County commissioner, is the first woman to serve on the county board. She doesn't know why more women arenít serving. She grew up in Goodhue County and says that she was always the kind of person to volunteer for things, to step forward and serve. This history of service and activism seems to be an important background qualification for many women leaders.
Doris Grindland of Lanesboro has the distinction of being the first woman to serve as mayor of a town in Fillmore County. Grindland was elected mayor of Fountain in 1980. "Iíve been handing out campaign brochures since I was a little kid," Grindland says. Grindlandís mother and other relatives were lifelong Republican activists. She ran for mayor at the suggestion of the city clerk, and says "thereís got to be a lot more women speaking up." Similarly, Jean Ingvalson, who serves on the Mabel City Council, came from a family that was always involved in politics, as her father served as state senator in the 1970ís. "People are still learning that women can contribute," Ingvalson says.
Whoever serves in government has to be willing to deal with the conflicts that are an inevitable part of the job. Grindland says "If youíre going to do any good, itís going to be stressful, or it isnít worth doing." Donivee Johnson, Mayor of Canton, agrees that "you have to be willing to stand up for what you think. A lot of times your arguments get shot down, and you have to deal with that, and not have your feelings hurt." Even Governor Jesse Ventura recently admitted that his biggest weakness was that he was too "thin skinned," and took peopleís criticisms personally. Brenda Johnson says that being a change agent can be stressful. "Sometimes women want to avoid taking on personal stresses. They donít want to look a neighbor in the eye and say Ďno I wonít grant your varianceí."
Brenda Johnson observes that "sometimes people are elected who want to solve a single issue. When they find out how complicated the problems are, they may drop out, and this is unfortunate. Every council position is too important for a single issue person to be serving," she says.
Brenda Johnson says that the other women she has seen in elected office are "often very good at relationship building." This is a skill that government needs. "Government canít be an island unto itself," she says.
Lee Luebbe of Winona served on the Winona County Board and now acts as a consultant to local governments. She says that "my experience has been that women have a more collaborative approach to leadership than men," and that the complexity of these times favors such a leadership style.
Rushford Village has the distinction of having three women serving on its council, but in most other cities, women are serving alone. Some women serve in communities that lack experience in seeing women in positions of authority. It therefore helps to have strong support from family and others in the community. Mabelís Jean Ingvalson says that she has support in the community, and values supporters who also come to meetings.
"It is difficult at times being the only woman," she admits. Luebbe says elected service can be a terrific growing experience, but can also be "draining and isolating. You need to have a core of support."
Lynn Humble, who served on the Rushford City Council for eight years, described some of her early experiences in showing up at council meetings: "You walk in. All eyes turn to you, and ask -what in the heck is she doing here?"
But she wouldnít trade her experience for anything. ďThe city council job,Ē she said, "always starts with learning. Once you get into it, itís a lot of fun." She urges women and others interested in serving to "try out working on commissions first, to see whether you can make a change. Bite the bullet and jump in."
ďThe best part of serving,Ē says Brenda Johnson, ďis that it makes me feel like Iím giving back. I can have a positive impact. Chatfield is changing, and I want to be involved. We want to manage change, without losing that small town feel."
Lee Luebbe says that public office will have a transforming effect on people. "It calls for a lot of courage, and takes some faith." Although the public is often critical of elected officials, Luebbe says she is "less judgmental of people in public service now, having served. The general public is not always well informed about the issues. The press is often not helpful."
"There are some extraordinary women who have served in local government," Brenda Johnson says. "They have strong personalities. They see how things can be improved."
These women act as role models, and encourage both men and women to consider elected leadership as a promising opportunity for community service.
Martha Greenwald is a Lanesboro artist and writer.