There’s nothing like it in the nation!

Other states have tried, but only Minnesota has successfully created a Consortium made up of more than 160 organizations, each and all committed to the achievement of full equality and justice for women and girls. For thirty years, the Consortium has been a resource center, a referral network, an information source, and a supportive place, a form for the exchange of knowledge and ideas.

The Consortium hosts a website and a blog and produces an electronic newsletter in addition to its popular Capitol Bulletin. Its membership, staff and board are diverse in age and race and in many other ways. The Minnesota Women’s Consortium co-owns with the League of Women Voters Minnesota Education Fund the Minnesota Women’s Building.

How has the Consortium persisted and thrived, inventing and reinventing itself?
Because of the able and energetic women who launched, led, and continue to lead the MWC. The first was Nina Rothchild, director of the state’s Council on the Economic Status of Women who, in the late 1970’s, organized an informal roundtable discussion group to help women’s groups around the state keep in touch with one another. “We need a place where we could cry on each other’s shoulders and grow stronger,” she said. Even more than that, they needed a clearinghouse for women’s issues and concerns.

The first steps toward a clearinghouse were taken after the end of the 1980 state legislative session when volunteer lobbyists for women’s groups and state legislators Linda Berglin, Nancy Brataas, Karen Clark, Phyllis Kahn and Carolyn Rodriguez decided that there needed to be a non-governmental organization that could bring together everyone who was working for women’s equality.

The first meeting to establish such a women’s agenda was held on September 18, 1980, at the home of Kay Taylor, a Republican activist and feminist. Kay remembered how things had been for girls when she was in high school and on the state debate championship team. “Our coach [said] what the debate team needed was a very bright boy and a pretty girl. At the time I thought, ‘Yes, that’s right’.” That’s not how she thought in 1980.

Fifty-four people representing many organizations came. Gloria Griffin was a convener of the meeting, and she was unanimously chosen the coordinator, partly because she was able and energetic, and partly because she was not connected with any one issue. “I joined the Women’s Political Caucus,” she recalled later, “I joined NOW. I joined a lot of the feminist organizations, and they all seemed to have their own view. There wasn’t a group I joined I didn’t like.” She remained the coordinator for fifteen years.

Very early on in the life of the Consortium, two critical decisions were made: First, as an entity it wouldn’t endorse candidates or take positions on issues. Instead, it would provide information about issues supported by member organizations. Second, it decided on the Houston Plan of Action, developed as part of International Women’s Year in 1977, as comprehensive agenda. Member groups did not have to endorse every item in the plan, but they could not actively oppose any one of them. This decision was a key to long-term success.

By September of 1980, the fabric of the new organization had been created: a temporary steering committee had been put together (originally planned to consist of eight women, it was expanded to twelve when additional members expressed a wish to serve), a dues structure was established, and by-laws were drafted. None of these achievements had been created without disagreement, but as Kathleen Ridder urged, at Celebration 1, “We need everybody. Let’s not become divided on issues. We’ve got to think of our common goal — equal opportunity for all.” Joan Growe, then Secretary of State, echoed those remarks. “Pool your resources and talent,” she said, “so much of it [is] represented here tonight.”

And indeed that is what happened. By June 1981, 55 organizations had joined the Women’s Consortium. Communication among them was critically important. The first Consortium Brown Bag Lunch was held on February 10, 1981; the first Capitol Bulletin, edited by Bonnie Watkins, was published only a few days earlier, and has continued without interruption ever since. Grace Harkness and Leone Carstens took over publication chores shortly thereafter. The Legislative Reporter was added in 1984.

For what great amounts of money did these women work? Did they threaten to bolt to another team if their salary demands were not met?

You know. There were all volunteers. Gloria Griffin claimed they worked out of Grace Harkness’s station wagon, “where we kept the typewriter.” A feminist legend perhaps. But true to the spirit of the times.

Not until 1984 was the first person actually hired to work for the Consortium. Several Minnesota foundations, and women program officers who staffed them – Judy Healey at Northwest Area, Marcia Townley at Dayton’s, Pat Jensen at Pillsbury, Polly Nyberg at St. Paul Companies – made grants. A major grant from the McKnight Foundation came in 1983. $200,000 made it possible to pay staff at last.

The first “real jobs” were created, and Kay Taylor and Grace Harkness were hired to share the job of legislative coordinator. Leone Carstens became the editorial coordinator. Lorraine Hart started as office coordinator on January 15, 1984, and you will see her name still on the masthead of the Capitol Bulletin. And Gloria Griffin led this team as coordinator.

For its first seven years the Consortium rented a storefront office on University Avenue. Then, in 1988 it acquired a room of its own – the Minnesota Women’s Building at 550 Rice Street, only two blocks from the Capitol. Gloria Griffin led a team of women developers, fundraisers, and construction workers to transform the building from its former status as a pornography shop. The building was jointly purchased by the League of Women Voters Education Fund, Chrysalis and the MWC. It was debt free from the beginning.

At the Women’s Building’s grand opening, a reporter asked Gloria Griffin, “If there’s a women’s building, why isn’t there a men’s building?” She replied, “From where I am standing I can see two men’s buildings, the State Capitol and the St. Paul Cathedral.” From its earliest days the Consortium made space available to small and emerging organizations. Today the building houses 13 organizations working for women: seven are in the “incubator space,” two are owners, and four are major tenants.

In those early years the MWC took on specific issues and worked to rouse members and member organizations to bring about change: one campaign focused on getting more women on the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents. Another chastised the Fallon McElligott advertising agency for the portrayal of women in its ads and for its insulting response to one woman’s complaint. The result? The agency lost US West, one of its biggest accounts and, as Kate Parry reported in the Star Tribune, “The story ended up in Newsweek magazine [and] the agency apologized.”

For many years, an annual Minnesota Women’s Economic Action Plan was presented by the MWC. A yearly document of state issues, goals and actions, it served as an excellent education and lobbying tool. Currently, all issues adopted at the women’s conferences in Houston and Beijing are now included in a Minnesota Women’s Action Plan.

The founding mothers of the organization can take pride in what has been accomplished:

  • In 1980, the MWC had 23 member organizations. Today it has 132.
  • More women than ever before are running for public office — and winning.
  • Consortium member groups have improved the lives of children in Minnesota: they have increased funding for the sliding fee child care program, have helped expand Head Start programs and extended health insurance to our children.
  • Thanks to the vigilance of member organizations, Minnesota is unique in the nation in requiring pay equity for women employed by the state’s 1,600 cities, counties and school districts — as well as all 20,000 women employed in state government.
  • Member groups worked hard to pass a minimum wage for waitresses and a law forbidding commercial credit sources from discriminating on the basis of sex or marital status.
  • Minnesota women won six weeks of unpaid parental leave, and Consortium members helped the state become the first in the nation to require privacy and break time for lactating mothers in the workplace.
  • MWC groups shepherded divorce settlement and maintenance for older divorcing women up to the Minnesota Supreme Court and won.

The Minnesota Women’s Consortium has coordinated events that make a difference, and has cultivated projects and ideas brought forward by women. It has offered a sympathetic ear, advice, connections, a place to meet, and has often served as fiscal agent.

The Minnesota Women’s Consortium has changed with the times. Some of the founding mothers of the organization look back fondly on the early days when they were creating new ways of working together and when all things seemed possible. “I loved coming to work every day,” says Gloria Griffin. The triumph of those early years was the creation of structures and institutions that could sustain and advance the goals of women’s equality in a nurturing atmosphere.

Rosalie Wahl, the first female justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court, has observed, “The Minnesota Women’s Consortium is the most important thing that has happened for Minnesota women since ratification of the 19th amendment. This great umbrella network informs and educates us on each other’s activities, sounds the alarm as needed, and facilitates action for the common good. It is a seedbed of creativity and cooperation.”

Much remains to be done. There is still no Equal Rights Amendment; Minnesota women still earn only $.77 for every dollar earned by men; women and girls are still the majority of those in poverty and they are less than safe on the streets, at school and work. Reproductive choices and civil rights are under assault. There is a glass ceiling that holds back most of the talented women in corporate America.

Minnesota’s population has changed in age, ethnicity, color and employment status; the differences between rich and poor have grown wider; lesbians, women in business and health care, women leaders among recent immigrants, and many more are bringing new attention to issues. All these changes have implications for the Consortium.

“We gather in a time of transition,” Bonnie Watkins, MWC’s former executive director, has pointed out. “the founding mothers laid the groundwork, and it is time for a new generation of women to join them and build on their achievements.”