by CHRIS ROGERS
As newly elected officials take office, many Americans are celebrating the fact that more women are members of the U.S. Congress this year than ever before. Still, less than a quarter of U.S. representatives and senators are women. Yesterday, another elected body passed a different milestone: For the first time in history, women make up a majority of the Winona County Board.
“Honestly, I don’t think it’s going to make a lick of difference,” County Board member Chris Meyer said when asked whether she thought the County Board’s gender milestone was important. “I don’t see that there’s a lot of women’s issues at the county level, and certainly not women’s issues that I ran upon and try now to enact.” Meyer won election this fall, replacing former commissioner Jim Pomeroy in district one (eastern Winona), and is now one of three women on the five-member board. “Nationally, just in terms of women’s rights or the equal rights amendments … I can see then how it would be more impactful. At the county level, I don’t really see that. We deal with social services, community services, public safety, roads and bridges, and I don’t see how those will change substantially just because there are now three women on the board,” she continued.
“It’s representative of our times,” County Board member Marcia Ward stated. “It’s a good thing because women do represent at least a half, maybe more of the electorate.” Winona County’s population is 50.8 percent female, according to the U.S. Census. “I personally, though, have never tried to use or play the woman card,” Ward said. “I think people need to be elected to positions by their qualifications and character and their ability to do the job … I hope [the County Board] is dominated by the best people to do the job.”
“It more than represents the percentages in the county, so I think that’s good,” County Board member Marie Kovecsi said of the board’s new gender balance. However, she added, referring to county committees that are often majority-male, “In some ways, if you look at all of our committees and all of the input we get from that angle, we’re probably not balanced that way. But it is what it is.”
That said, Kovecsi said she does not feel gender was a significant consideration for voters. “I don’t know that people consciously said, ‘I want a woman,’” she stated. “They want their voice to be heard, and they want things to be fair,” Kovesci added.
Ward said that growing up on her family’s farm, her father never treated her differently than her male siblings. “I got to clean out calf pans just like my brothers did,” she stated. In her professional career, Ward added, “Most of the time I have not had this woman thing thrown in my face. I am who I am.”
Meyer shared a similar experience: “I had the good fortune to work for a company where, the 30 years I was there, General Mills was really forward-thinking, and I really never felt that I had any kind of discrimination in my rate of pay or my ability to advance. So I really came from a place where I was empowered in the workplace.”
In electing its first majority-female County Board, Winona County is not breaking any new ground for Minnesota counties or for Winona-area local governments. Numerous Minnesota counties have had female-majority boards, and Winona Area Public Schools currently has — and has had in the past — a majority-female board.
Counting the mayor as part of the council, women have never made up a majority of the Winona City Council, though the group has come close. The City Council’s membership was three-sevenths female in the late 1970s. The current City Council has the same gender balance. Mary Masyga and Muriel Ollum became the Winona’s first female City Council members in 1961. Winona County’s first female County Board member, Lorraine Cieminski, was elected in 1976 to represent district one.