Some months ago I noted in passing that the theme for Women’s History Month, March 2016, is “Working to Form a More Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Public Service and Government.” Immediately I thought of the scores of Minnesota women in public service who deserve heaps of praise and thanks, not just during Women’s History Month but every day in every way. I mentally checked off elected officials, office workers, fire fighters, academics, health care professionals, teachers, clerks, judges, librarians, police officers and countless other women who work with honor and energy to serve the public good. These women form a huge percentage of government workers who wage Minnesota’s never-ending struggle to “form a more perfect union.”
With fondness, my thoughts traveled back to an earlier time when Governor Rudy Perpich intentionally and strategically led a relentless effort to put the “action” in affirmative action.
In this reflective – and appreciative — mood I perused the list of this year’s Women’s History Month honorees, an august selection of exceptional women from throughout the country. In 2016 the honor, conferred by the National Women’s History Project, celebrates women who have devoted their lives to public service and government.
First on that list (which admittedly was alphabetical) is Sister Mary Madonna Ashton, CSJ of St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1983 Governor Perpich – and Sister Mary Madonna – made headlines when the Governor appointed her as the first woman and first non-physician to serve as Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health.
As was his practice, Governor Perpich placed his confidence in a strong and proven candidate. Sister Mary Madonna had served as President and CEO of St. Mary’s Hospital in Minneapolis for twenty years (1962 to 1982.) Her tenure as Commissioner of Health extended from 1983 to 1991, by which time she had established a solid record. Her gender and MSW (as opposed to MD) degrees were no longer the high points of the laudatory remarks by which she was introduced to health care administrators and young people entering the fields of health care and public service.
Sponsors of the national honoree designation underscore just a sampling of the challenges Sister Mary Madonna encountered in her role as Commissioner of Health. She is praised for “successfully addressing smoking cessation and AIDS prevention.” Underscoring her efforts to stop widespread smoking and ready access to tobacco, the selectors write: “Sister Ashton helped pass landmark legislation outlawing smoking in public places and on public property. Testifying for days against the tobacco industry, her success on behalf of the state of Minnesota started a nationwide movement.” (Remember that this was “back in the 80’s”)
Sister Mary Madonna Ashton joins a company of remarkable women who have committed their work lives to public service and government. These women, some living, others deceased, are being honored in 2016 for their unstinting efforts “to form a more perfect union.” The 2016 honorees are these:
Nadine Smith, (1965–present) LGBT civil rights activist and Executive Director of Equality Florida.
Dorothy C. Stratton (1899-2006) WWII Director of the SPARS (Coast Guard women’s reserve) and Executive Director of the Girl Scouts of America.
Bernice Sandler (1928-present) Women’s rights activist, known as the “Godmother of Title IX”
Karen Narasaki (1958-present) Civil and human rights leader, Commissioner of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Nancy Grace Roman (1925-present) Created a space astronomy program at NASA, known as the “Mother of Hubble”
Judy Hart (1941-present) National Park Founding Superintendent of Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park and Women’s Rights National Historical Park.
Isabel Gonzalez (1882-1971) Champion of Puerto Ricans securing American citizenship.
Sonia Pressman Fuentes (1928-present) National Organization for Women co-founder and first woman attorney at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission General Council’s Office.
Oveta Culp Hobby (1905-1995) WWII Director of the Women’s Army Corps and first Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
Barbara Mikulski (1937-present) Senator from Maryland and longest serving woman in the U.S. Congress.
Betty Mae Tiger Jumper (1923-2001). First woman Chief of the Seminole Tribe and presidential advisor.
Inez Milholland Boissevain (1886-1916) Women’s Suffrage leader and martyr.
Daisy Lee Gatson Bates (1914-1999) Civil Rights organizer and leader of the Little Rock school integration.
Ella Tambussi Grasso (1919-1981) Governor of Connecticut, first woman U.S. governor elected in her own right.
Suzan Shown Harjo (1945-present) Native American public policy advocate and journalist.
More information about Womens History Month at http://nwhp.org/womens-history-month-2016