The historical firsts for Minnesota women began at the top of the ticket, with the election of Democrat Amy Klobuchar to the U.S. Senate. Klobuchar rarely talked about her gender during her campaign. But last August Klobuchar told a story at the AFL-CIO state convention about the moment when her campaign seemed to turn a corner in persuading voters skeptical of electing a woman. Klobuchar recalled speaking to some retired steelworkers in Hibbing.
"This woman stands up at the end, and she says, 'My name is Mrs. Rose Bradovich, I'm 70-some years old, I've never voted for a woman before, I think they should be home with their kids,'" Klobuchar said. "I said, 'my daughter's OK with it.' She said, 'Yeah, but here's the point: I've listened tonight, and I've decided in your case, I'm making an exception.'"
Klobuchar said her campaign made some breakthroughs, not only with men, but with women who hadn't voted for women before. Klobuchar said when Joan Growe and Ann Wynia ran unsuccessfully for the Senate, they campaigned on sending a woman to Washington. Klobuchar said she doesn't think voters responded to that as a central campaign theme. Instead, Klobuchar talked about her record as Hennepin County attorney, and called for change in Congress.
Klobuchar will join Rep. Betty McCollum and Rep.-elect Michele Bachmann in Washington. With women filling three of the state's 10 House and Senate seats, Minnesota will have the fourth-highest ratio of women serving in its congressional delegation in the country, following Maine, California and South Dakota.
Minnesota voters also elected Lori Swanson as the state's first female attorney general. A wall in the attorney general's conference room is lined with photographs of the 28 men who won the office before Swanson, who has worked in the office for nearly eight years. Like Klobuchar, Swanson didn't stress her gender during her campaign.
"I've always run on just being a lawyer, a well-qualified lawyer who happens to be a woman, as opposed to running as a woman lawyer," Swanson said. "And so to me, I've never thought of my gender as particularly relevant, it was always just my experience and what I want to do as attorney general for the people of Minnesota."
Other statewide winners include Rebecca Otto as state auditor and Carol Molnau for a second term as lieutenant governor, an office women have held for more than 20 years.
Women also picked up seven seats in the Legislature; 43 women will serve in the House, and 27 in the Senate, the most ever for either body. Three-fourths of the female legislators are Democrats, including the new speaker of the house, Margaret Anderson Kelliher. Kelliher said she's proud to be only the second female speaker in state history, but said her election has less to do with her gender than with her leadership style.
"I think it has a lot to do with a skill set that I bring to the job - fairness. I'm a good listener, I also enjoy making decisions, and so I think that those are the things that people look for in this type of position," Kelliher said. Annette Meeks, a former Minnesota Republican Party official, said the gains women made in the last election are noteworthy. Even though men generally outnumber women in legislative bodies, she said voters tend to think women will be trustworthy public officials.
"If you look at any of the research that's been done nationwide on women in legislatures and women in Congress, voters tend to give a pretty good break to women candidates, something I think the Democrats have obviously figured out here in Minnesota," said Meeks.
While women made significant strides in the election, they have yet to achieve the top elected position in the state of Minnesota - or in Washington.