See more of the story

As St. Paul prepares to swear in a new city council made entirely of women next month, Stillwater will start another year with all men, a feature of the city's leadership that's been remarkably enduring since its first meeting in 1854.

The city has had 51 mayors, all men, and no woman has served on the city council for at least a decade. It's estimated that only four women have been on the city council, starting in the 1970s. That makes Stillwater nearly alone amongst the 33 cities and townships in Washington County; many have women as mayors and at least one woman council member.

So why don't women serve in Stillwater?

"It's not that they're losing elections," said Sirid Kellermann, chair of the Stillwater Human Rights Commission. "It's that they're not running."

In its review this fall of local issues, the commission looked at women in local politics and tried to understand why so few find their way to elected positions in City Hall. What it found is that there's no simple answer.

It could be that people don't want to run against incumbents, said Kellermann. Council Member Mike Polehna, who also sits on the Human Rights Commission, said people sometimes call him to say that they'd like to run for office, but only if he's stepping down.

"We are Minnesotans after all, and we don't rock the boat," said Kellermann.

It could also be, Kellermann added, that some women don't want to run for office knowing they could be the only woman on the city council; or maybe women in Stillwater find leadership positions elsewhere and don't find the need to run for local office. "If you look at the chamber of commerce, there is very strong representation by women," she said.

Ann Bodlovick, the first woman elected to the Stillwater City Council, served from 1974 to 1994.
Ann Bodlovick, the first woman elected to the Stillwater City Council, served from 1974 to 1994.

Washington County Historical Society

Across Washington County, women make up about 30% of local government, and women make up about 35% in Minnesota, according to the commission's research.

In cities around Stillwater, women have long run for office and won.

Mary McComber, who is now Oak Park Heights' mayor, was the lone woman on the council for many years until the recent election of Carly Johnson. The challenges of being a mom made holding public office difficult, said McComber. "There has been a basketball game that I've missed once in a while because I had to go to a council meeting," she said. "Maybe lives are busier than they once were."

McComber is about to start her 12th year as mayor, and recently learned that the National League of Cities named her the 2023 recipient of a Woman in Leadership award. As for why her neighbors in Stillwater don't run, McComber said she doesn't know.

"There's so many wonderful women to run for city council and some of them stand back and say, 'There's an incumbent, and I don't want to run against an incumbent,'" said McComber.

Incumbency is a powerful force in local politics that works for women, too, said Sheila-Marie Untiedt, a member of the Stillwater Township Board since 1996.

"I've had people run against me but no one was ever close," she said. "I don't mean that in a braggart way, but Stillwater Township is like Mayberry RFD. It's a sweet and lovely place and I love local government because people are just one person away from you."

Untiedt said she doesn't know why women don't run in the city of Stillwater. "I don't feel as if it's a toxic environment," she said, referring to the City Council. "Mike [Polehna] is a lovely person," she said. "I think he does a very good job."

Cassie Jo McLemore attributed her City Council loss to her opponent’s ground game.
Cassie Jo McLemore attributed her City Council loss to her opponent’s ground game.

John Kaul

Cassie Jo McLemore was the most recent woman to run for City Council in Stillwater, losing out to future Stillwater mayor Ted Kozlowski in 2012.

"I would say that my experience was very positive," said McLemore. "People were excited that I was running." She attributed her loss to Kozlowski's ground game. He knew more people as a Stillwater native and had more people working for him, she said.

The non-controversial nature of most of the things that come before the City Council might be another reason few people choose to challenge the incumbents, said McLemore. "There's nothing that people have been up in arms about," she said.

"I've certainly thought about running again but I'm a busy mom," she said. "My husband and I run a business and I've got three kids."

Kellermann, at the Human Rights Commission, said the group might look for ways to broaden the conversation about women running for local office. Perhaps it would help to offer training workshops on public speaking or campaigning, she said, or look at what other barriers might exist, from printing yard signs, to the time of day that the council meets, to the availability of on-site child care.

If women aren't running for office, said Kellermann, "I think at a minimum we owe it to ourselves to understand, 'Why not?'"