Moorhead is largest city in Minnesota led mostly by women

MOORHEAD -- The presence and power of women in Moorhead city government is growing. Women first made up the majority of Moorhead City Council in 2014. It took 132 years for the historic shift, which also included electing the city's first female ...

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MOORHEAD - The presence and power of women in Moorhead city government is growing.

Women first made up the majority of Moorhead City Council in 2014. It took 132 years for the historic shift, which also included electing the city's first female mayor, Del Rae Williams.

That majority increased after this fall's election, as the council added an additional woman. Now, five of the eight council members are women, in addition to the mayor, a rare occurrence in the state and across the country.

"It's exciting," Williams said. "But truth be told, men have had that for a long time, and it's OK that it happens to be mostly women this time."

The city recently made another gain in gender parity after the council approved hiring the city's first female city manager, Christina Volkers, at its first council meeting of 2017.


Heidi Durand, who is serving her sixth year on the council, said back when Moorhead first got a female majority that it could be the start of something new. That's turning out to be true three years later.

Durand said the city's inclusion of women has "opened doors" for other women and that gender "as a barrier has been removed."

"I think it's a nationwide trend, and we're just following suit," Durand said. "A lot more women are feeling empowered [and] a lot more initiatives have encouraged women to enter politics and leadership positions. I think now that we've kind of broken that glass ceiling, more and more people are seeing it. More and more women are seeing that and seeing that it's a possibility."

Despite Hillary Clinton's failed attempt to shatter what she referred to as the "highest and hardest glass ceiling," losing her bid for the presidency, she was still the first woman nominated for president by a major party. Still, women remain underrepresented at all levels of government.

"There was concern that her [Clinton's] loss would discourage women. If anything it's a wake up call," said Deborah White, sociology and criminal justice professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead and coordinator of the annual Tri-College NEW Leadership Development Institute that provides leadership training and support to women.

White, whose research focus is on women representation in politics, said that "it will be interesting to see what happens now with the Trump administration." The effects of his campaign "galvanized women" and made them "more aware of how far we have to go."

Sara Watson Curry, one of the newest members of the Moorhead City Council, experienced a similar wake up call on a local level after observing the Fargo City Commission election in June. Melissa Sobolik, the only woman on Fargo's five-member commission, declined to run for re-election, and her seat and a second open slot on the commission were both won by men.

"Seeing them have all male representation certainly called my attention to the necessity. I was very cognizant of that," Watson Curry said. "I would like to see that diversity and dynamics that represents a community, so I was frustrated to see that play out especially because they had a record number of women run."


There were five women candidates who ran to fill the two open at-large seats on the Fargo City Commission. Though it didn't turn out that way in Fargo, women are elected to local councils at higher rates in cities that have at-large seats rather than wards or districts, White said, citing a 2015 study by Representation 20/20.

White said the contrast of women representation in the two border cities is "striking," but it is not surprising when looking at the overall presence of women in politics.

Less than 25 percent of all state legislatures and about 19 percent of Congress members are women. Only five women are governors in the U.S., and a majority of states - including Minnesota and North Dakota - have never elected a female governor.

For cities with a population of 30,000 or greater, about 19 percent of mayors were women in 2016, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Williams is among that list with 10 other female mayors in Minnesota, but no North Dakota city that large has a woman as mayor.

Of the 100 largest cities, only 16 have a female majority on their city councils, according to Representation 20/20.

Moorhead is the only city of its size in Minnesota to have both a female majority on council and a woman as mayor, according to data provided by the League of Minnesota Cities. There are 853 cities throughout the state and most have a five-member council, though some have seven members or more.

"Moorhead is really ahead in terms of women representation," White said.

This is attributed to the city's history of encouraging and supporting women dating back to the 1970s, she said, as well as intentional efforts to recruit women to run for office. Williams, for example, approached Durand to run for city council.


"I have been for decades very involved with the idea of women running for leadership positions.

That has to do with diversity of thought. If you're not all white-haired, white men you might have a different view point of the world," Williams said. "If you have a variety and the variety is more reflective of the community I think that's a good thing."

Williams said the addition of another female vote on the council isn't such a major change. However she said the three newest members-Watson Curry, Melissa Fabian and Joel Paulsen-are all in their 30s and replaced the three oldest members on the council. Among the outgoing member was Nancy Otto, the longest-serving council member with 17 years of service.

With the female majority and younger women on the council, Williams expects more women to be encouraged to run for Moorhead office in the future.

Trends and the current political climate suggests there is a growing interest among women to run for office, White said.

"A lot of women are frustrated that issues that are important to them aren't getting enough attention," White said. "You see more women stepping out and speaking out. The next obvious step is to run for office."

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