Commentary

In discussion of equality, rural women are too often left behind — Opinion

During the week we celebrate the 19th amendment, don’t forget rural women

August 24, 2021 6:00 am

Two Minnesota House members confer, Rep. Hannah Kempfer and Rep. Mabeth Hurd Paige. In 1922, Kempfer was one of four women elected, and the sole woman from a rural district. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society exhibit, “Votes for Women.”

Over the past several months, I have engaged with women across Minnesota to learn how to get more women to run for office. 

Whether in big cities, wealthy suburbs or the Iron Range, we share common frustrations like inadequate child care, as well as common worries like the COVID-19 crisis, women’s economic security and the health of our democracy. 

As we rebuild with new public policy, from federal legislation to Minnesota’s own agenda, rural women are too often left out. The distinct interests of those of us in rural areas — we still have the worst access to the internet — are often deprioritized or ignored in the national conversation. With just two women representing rural Minnesota in the state Senate — there are 20 men — we do not have the kind of representation we deserve in state government either.

August 26 is Women’s Equality Day, honoring the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote. As we reckon with what we can accomplish with that right to vote and what it truly means for all women to achieve equality, we must remember how women of different races, home countries, orientations, socio-economic classes and zip codes — the communities they live in — matter. 

For example, women in Minnesota make up the majority — 59% — of workers who are paid at or below the minimum wage. The wage gap hasn’t narrowed over the past five years, with women losing an estimated $400,560 in lifetime earnings on average, according to a joint project of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota and the Center on Women, Gender, and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota. 

When it comes to smaller towns like Mahnomen or Preston and cities like St. Cloud and Makanto, rural women experience these same wage gaps but with higher rates of poverty and inequality. 

Many women in Minnesota don’t have access to child care. According to WFM and the University of Minnesota, the typical family with a young child resides where there are almost two children for every one slot of child care. Minnesota ranks as the fifth least affordable state for annual cost of infant care and as the seventh least affordable state for annual cost of toddler care. 

I know too many mothers in rural and northern Minnesota who simply do not have access to child care, and too many child care workers who are deeply underpaid. The Center for Rural Policy and Development found what is holding rural Minnesota back from taking a serious leap forward economically is the lack of workers, and the number one thing holding potential workers back is the lack of child care.

To make real change for ourselves and our rural communities, we need a reflective democracy, one where rural women are truly represented. Rural women need to lead their neighbors on the city council, take their policy ideas to the Legislature and represent us in Congress. With a seat at every table, they will share their experiences and insights so legislation reflects the circumstances rural women face. 

Without some of these basic needs met, though, how can more rural women even consider running for political office? 

Are you a woman interested in learning more about running for office or know a formidable woman who would be great for political office in Minnesota? Visit VoteRunLead to learn more about resources available to women interested in running for office.

That’s where you come in. In my conversations, I am reminded we first must remember to acknowledge that rural women and the homes we live in should not be stereotyped. There are 19 million women living in rural America, with 882,855 just in Minnesota, and we aren’t all monolithic communities. We are not only farmers, but also miners, doctors, teachers, child care workers and more. We have rich cultural and ethnic backgrounds and beliefs across the political spectrum. Secondly, I met women in rural communities who have ambition to run for office but can’t count on the structure of the party system to meet their needs. Lastly, it is going to take creativity to provide rural women candidates the resources they need for success. 

Here’s what we can do: Start small and get strategic. Encourage women you know with incredible leadership skills to consider running. Research shows women are more likely to say yes to public office if their friends and family encourage them. When determining who to donate to, put rural women candidates on your agenda. Then, consider donating the maximum amount to them, as the money will go much further in their campaigns. If you don’t live in a rural community, consider hosting a virtual fundraiser for a rural woman candidate. Support them in other ways — offer child care for when they’re attending events, donate to a gas fund or loan an office space with good internet service for their campaign phone banks. 

And then vote. Vote for legislation to provide the right resources for women candidates and legislators. Vote to support the women in your communities. 

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Beth Peterson
Beth Peterson

Beth Peterson, Minnesota state director of Vote Run Lead, is passionate about reducing poverty in rural, northeast Minnesota. She has successfully advocated for policy changes that affect the ability of women and girls to move to self-sufficiency, from early childhood education to access to non-traditional career pathways. Beth has run numerous political campaigns, and she served a term on the Eveleth City Council. Beth enjoys volunteering in the community with her spouse and three children.

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